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Helio Getting Comfortable in New Surroundings with Arrow McLaren SP

Helio Castroneves was the mystery man walking through Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday’s crisp morning, wearing Arrow McLaren SP gear, mask engulfing his face, winter hat covering that always pristine hair because this Florida-based driver has never warmed to fall conditions in the Midwest.

Certainly, this wasn’t a familiar look for Castroneves, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Castroneves, 45, has been racing at these hallowed grounds since 2001 and was an Indy car driver for Team Penske even before that. Colton Herta wasn’t born when Roger Penske hired the Brazilian; Pato O’Ward hadn’t yet had his first birthday. Now the youngsters are drivers Castroneves wants to beat this weekend in the INDYCAR Harvest GP, and O’Ward is Castroneves’ teammate as he replaces rookie Oliver Askew, who is recovering from side effects from his Turn 4 crash in the “500.”

If seeing Castroneves in colors other than Team Penske is odd, imagine how he feels: Everything he owns is in that brand. Every Indy car he has driven since June 2001 has been Penske’s No. 3.

Castroneves will drive the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP in Friday’s first race (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network) and Saturday’s second race (2:30 p.m., NBC).

Castroneves does have some familiarity with his new surroundings. Gil de Ferran, his teammate of four seasons at Team Penske, is sporting director of McLaren Racing, and Billy Vincent, a former Penske Racing employee, is the strategist for Arrow McLaren SP’s No. 7 car.

“Look, the No. 7 has been great for us this year in sports cars,” said Castroneves, who has won the past three races in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “It’s a great brand and a great team (at Arrow McLaren SP), and I’m excited to represent them this weekend.”

The manner in which Castroneves is working this week is different, but the job remains the same. The field has expanded to 25 cars, with Sage Karam driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Sebastien Bourdais joining A.J. Foyt Racing and James Hinchcliffe returning to Andretti Autosport.

Series points leader Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing won the GMR Grand Prix at IMS on July 4, and he will be one to beat this weekend.

Castroneves knows the challenge he faces in driving for a new team with just one 70-minute practice session, in which he ended up 23rd overall.

“Expectations are always there,” he said. “Reality is also there, too.

“We have only one practice and go straight to qualifying. It’s a new team (for me). It’s trying to give what I have for over 20 years in a short period of time and will be, for sure, it’s a challenge. But I’m up for the challenge.”

While Castroneves hasn’t been in this role before, he has raced in six of the seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ road races held at IMS since 2014, finishing in the top six on five occasions. He finished second in 2016 and was third in 2016. He qualified on the front row in 2017.

“I know what I need at this place even if the grand prix we have not won yet,” he said. “It would be a very cool situation (to win), but you’ve got to be realistic, as well. Obviously, in this position, I’m here to give that opportunity for the team and to improve. And me, I’m learning.

“I can see it’s a great group of guys – incredible group of guys – and I’m excited, to be honest, to learn something different than I’ve been doing for 20 years.”

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