Helio Castroneves has parlayed his success in the Indianapolis 500 into mainstream stardom in America. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil was already a two-time Indianapolis winner when he made a victorious appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008, and he subsequently added a third Indy 500 win in May 2009.
Castroneves rose through the karting ranks in his native country before taking third place in the 1995 British Formula 3 championship. He moved to America the following year to contest the Firestone Indy Lights series for two years, scoring three wins and finishing second to Tony Kanaan in 1997.
For 1998, Castroneves moved up to Indy cars, racing for Bettenhausen Racing. His breakout performance came at the Milwaukee Mile, where he finished second in the CART’sanctioned race. Helio moved to Hogan Racing in 1999 and matched his second place finish at Gateway International Raceway.
Castroneves’ big break came near the end of 1999. Having just been informed that Hogan Racing was ceasing operation, Helio was tabbed to drive for Penske Racing’s CART team after Penske’s intended driver, Greg Moore, was killed during the 1999 CART season finale.
Castroneves won three races in 2000; after scoring his first Indy car race win at the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, he spontaneously jumped out of his car and climbed a chain link fence, sparking a victory celebration that since has been copied by NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
Helio achieved another three wins in the CART series in 2001, but he made bigger news by winning the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. Although Penske Racing continued full-time in the CART series, Castroneves and Gil de Ferran finished 1-2 for the team in its first Indianapolis appearance since 1995. Castroneves qualified 11th but led the final 52 laps in becoming the second consecutive rookie driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
Rain just after the halfway point led to a series of laps run under the caution flag, and the race was halted by heavier rain for about 40 minutes after the field had completed 155 laps. Castroneves had just taken the lead from Tony Stewart, with Robbie Buhl second and de Ferran third.
Buhl tried to pressure Castroneves when the race went green, but he overcooked it and crashed on Lap 165. All of the leaders pitted, with de Ferran and Castroneves maintaining their first and second place positions respectively. The final 30 laps were run under green flag conditions, and Castroneves stretched his advantage all the way to the checkered flag, finishing 1.737 seconds ahead of de Ferran and 5.736 seconds ahead of Michael Andretti.
The rivalry between Indy car series sanctioned by CART and the Indy Racing League was at its peak early in the 21st Century, and entries fielded by CART teams Penske Racing, Target Ganassi Racing and Team Green took the top six places in the 2001 Indianapolis 500. Seventh-placed Eliseo Salazar was the top regular IRL competitor.
Prior to going to Victory Lane, Castroneves stopped his car on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s main straight near the Yard of Bricks, jumped out, and performed his traditional victory celebration by climbing a chain link fence. He was joined on this occasion for the first time by several of his Penske Racing teammates.
“I’m just so happy to win here,” Castroneves said after the race. “I knew Gil had the same equipment, so I knew I had to just go for the win. It’s my first win on an oval, so I couldn't have picked a better one. I know how important experience is here, so I listened a lot to Rick Mears, Bobby Unser and Al Unser Sr. I went to them, and they said the last 50 laps are what counts. So when I was in the lead with 50 laps to go, I said, ‘This is mine.’ My car wasn't the fastest by itself, but it was fantastic in traffic. I just tried to always keep thinking ahead, and we stayed cool and calm all day.”
Ten years later, J.R. Hildebrand’s last-lap disappointment at Indy caused Castroneves to reflect on his 2001 victory in the ‘500.’
“I had a similar scenario in my rookie year at Indianapolis in 2001,” Helio said. “Going into Turn 1 on the last lap, I was in the lead but I had two backmarkers in front of me and my Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran was less than a second behind me. I thought, ‘If I don’t pass those guys, Gil will pass me.’ So I took a chance, but the difference between my situation and what happened to J.R. is that I made a move on the inside. That’s also very risky, and I’m glad those two backmarkers were able to see that I was coming through. They could have turned into me. But after I got through Turn 1, I knew I could bring it home no problem. It’s funny, I didn’t even know if I had just taken the white flag or the checkered flag because I was so focused on those guys that I didn’t even look! I remember Tim Cindric saying ‘Last lap!’ on the radio, but when you’re at Indianapolis, you lose your sense of time.”
The 2002 Indianapolis 500 produced one of the most controversial finishes in the long history of the race. Paul Tracy was racing Castroneves for the lead in Turn 3 on Lap 199, seconds after a crash between Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier occurred behind them on the track. The yellow flag flew, seemingly just after Tracy completed a pass for the lead. But Indy Racing League Chief Steward Brian Barnhart ruled that the caution period for the accident began before Tracy made his pass and he therefore declared Castroneves the race winner.
“The only reason he passed me is because the yellow came out and I lifted off,” Castroneves stated immediately after the race. “He couldn’t pass me otherwise. It’s difficult to pass here. From my car, I was inside on Turn 3. I was right at the apex and could see his rear wheel. You can’t see that on entry. Definitely in Turn 3 is where the yellow came on and that’s why I lifted off. I was saving as much as I could and I knew without the yellow we might not finish. I was crying like a baby. It’s just another dream come true.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t feel sorry for Tracy,” he added. “It’s a tough decision but we have a system that works for everyone. It’s a decision not for one driver but for all 33.”
Castroneves came as close as possible to becoming the first-ever driver to win the Indianapolis 500 three years in a row, but he came up 0.299 second short, finishing second to his teammate de Ferran in yet another Penske Racing 1-2 in 2003. A pair of ninth place finishes marked 2004-05, and in 2006, Castroneves posted his only retirement from the Indy 500 in eleven starts, crashing out on the 110th lap.
Helio earned the first of his four Indianapolis poles in 2007, but rain hampered his race strategy and he finished third in the shortened race. Castroneves qualified and finished fourth in 2008, then scored a masterful third Indy 500 win in 2009, this one coming from pole position.
It was the fitting conclusion to what had been a trying last year for the emotional Brazilian. The Indianapolis victory came just over a month after Castroneves’ U.S. Federal trial for tax evasion was resolved in his favor. In fact, two days before the race, Castroneves was informed he had been cleared of the seventh and final conspiracy count in an indictment process that started in October 2008.
Castroneves dropped to sixth place in the first third of the 500 as the Target Ganassi Racing cars of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti led 123 of the first 141 laps. Franchitti was the first to fall from contention when he was waved out of a Lap 134 pit stop with the fuel hose still attached to his Dallara-Honda. Then Dixon lost the lead to Castroneves on a restart after one of the day’s eight caution periods, putting Helio out front for the final 59 laps.
“During the race, I was just trying to take it easy,” Castroneves recalled. “I didn't want to push it. I was waiting for the right time and I just told them, put me in the lead, and I will have no problem. In fact, we didn't change anything in the car. As soon as they put me in the lead, boom, the car was just incredible. We were running 220s, even saving fuel, and I was just waiting for the right time. When we needed the speed, we were right there, and when we didn't need the speed we were very close to the other guys.”
Castroneves became the youngest three-time winner of the ‘500.’ “I feel honored to be in this category of drivers,” he said. “When I go to the dinners with the old-timers, I feel pretty honored just to be there. I feel blessed to be in that category. But without a team, without good people surrounding you, you cannot make that and, like I said many times, Team Penske has won so many times, so they prepared well for this race.”
After starting from the pole, Castroneves finished ninth in 2010. The 2011 race resulted in Castroneves’ least competitive performance at Indianapolis, as he qualified 16th, fell a lap down early and finished 17th.
Although he has never won a series championship in CART or IRL/IndyCar Series competition, Castroneves’ 25 race wins (including three in the Indianapolis 500) rank him tied for 13th on the all-time list of Indy car race winners. Bolstered by his “Dancing with the Stars” victory, Helio remains one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar Series and returns for a 13th consecutive season with Penske Racing in 2012.