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Under the helmet with Helio

NEW YORK -- Helio Castroneves pushed the estimated 300,000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the edge of their seats when he surged past Scott Dixon on the 142nd lap of the Indy 500. He brought scads of them to their feet when he streaked across the finish line 58 laps later, fist a-pumping, to his third Indy crown. But the coronation couldn't begin in earnest until the emotive Brazilian (think Roberto Benigni, only tanner and more hirsute) could made his ritual climb up the track fence to indulge in a celebration that has earned him the nickname Spider-Man.

But when Castroneves pulled up to the frontstretch catch fence and attempted to unfasten himself from his car, he was ambushed by a phalanx of track officials, including one burly, besuited gentleman who pinned Castroneves to his seat with a Heisman-like stiff arm. "I was like, 'I gotta go there. I gotta go to the fence,'" said Castroneves, who was in Manhattan on Tuesday for the first stop in a protracted nationwide publicity tour. "But as I was getting out, he pushed me down. That's when I was like, Oh, no. Now -- I'm really going there."

Of course, there would ultimately be no stopping Castroneves from making that fulfilling ascent. Same for his crewmen, who hurriedly wended their way from pit lane on the opposite end of the track, past their fettered driver and shot up the fence like a bunch of squirrels. Still, that Castroneves was dealt one last challenge seems a fitting end to a day during which little came easily for the No. 3 Penske team.

Indeed, the cathartic triumph speaks volumes about the resolve of Castroneves, who six weeks ago was looking at jail time on federal charges of tax evasion. (He was acquitted of all six counts, the last, just two days before the race.) But it says even more about him and his team. Their calm, patience and experience saw them through radio and transmission difficulties to Penske's 15th Borg Warner trophy. "My team doesn't like it when things are too relaxed," said the 34-year-old racing vet. "We work better under pressure."

They certainly didn't lack for adversity Sunday. Some of it, Castroneves says, he brought on himself the Friday before the race, on Carburetion Day, while breaking in the equipment he planned on using on race day. "You wanna make sure that you break in everything and that you're comfortable," he said, "because in a three-hour race, you've can't be thinking about anything else."

That day everything had performed to standard -- except for his earbuds, which keep him in radio contact with his team. One set had a thick cord that hurt his right ear (hardly painful at a standstill, but exponentially so as the Gs increase). Another had a blown-out speaker. But the third, both clear to hear and comfortable to wear, seemed just right -- so much so, that Castroneves didn't bother to test it much further. "That was my mistake," he said. "It was one of those things where in the back of my mind I thought, it'll be fine."

Fast-forward to just before the race, and Castroneves is behind the wheel, under-helmet, surrounded by his crew and going through the last of his pre-race checks. He radioed for a sound check and heard nothing. He radioed to have the volume turned up and heard static. He asked his nearby crewmen if he had time to change the earbuds and was told he had just three minutes to go before the green flag -- hardly enough time to disconnect himself from his car, peel back his fire suit and thread a fresh wire inside.

What's more, who knows if that would've fixed the problem? Finally, Castroneves said, "I was like, 'Never mind, let's just go. We've just gotta make sure we communicate.'"

Looking back at the race, the problem was clear from the start. The drivers didn't get the green flag for the start of the race the first time around because Castroneves gunned his engine, and left the rest of the field in his wake. Part of the problem was that his crew had no idea who could speak to him and when he'd be able to hear them.

His three spotters had their work cut out for them. Clive Howell, the team's general manager, was only coming in clearly in his patrol zone, between Turns One and Two. Rick Mears, the former Penske driver turned team consultant, was audible in his patrol zone, between Turns Three and Four. Team president Tim Cindric, the race strategist who communicates with Castroneves throughout the race, much like an offensive coordinator does a quarterback, was only audible on the front stretch.

Once Castroneves reached the Brickyard's 5/8 mile-long backstretch, the pole-sitter was essentially driving deaf. (Cindric suspects Penske's radio problems were exacerbated by someone either using their frequency, or one close to it.) Without a consistent voice in his ear, Castroneves initially struggled to react to flag changes.

"No one was telling me when [the field] was taking off," he said.

The situation forced Cindric to relay instructions to his driver earlier than normal -- a dangerous situation given that teams habitually eavesdrop on one another's radio chatter in hopes of gaining a tactical advantage. But as the race wore on, the flow of communication with Castroneves began to resemble a crisply-played game of telephone, with Cindric relaying instructions and advice to Howell, who passed it on to Mears so effectively, Castroneves said, that "Cindric didn't even bother talking to me."

Not that Castroneves minded. "He doesn't want to hear from you much when he's in the zone," said Cindric.

The second problem emerged in pit lane. The first few times Castroneves pulled out, an "E" appeared on his steering wheel display, an indication that his six-speed semi-automatic transmission had encountered a shifting error. But with the car still operating normally but exiting the pits fractionally slower and losing position, he largely ignored the signal. When the light came on again during a later stop, as Castroneves was attempting to charge back out of the pit, the car didn't budge. (The short story: a gear issue was preventing the transmission from automatically locking into first gear; when that happens, it automatically shifts into neutral.)

Fortunately for Castroneves, this was a problem with which he had some experience, having encountered it while racing in the past. His solution that time was to shut down the car completely, a time-consuming strategy that compromised all of the car's onboard electronics and cost him two laps in the race. The better option, he said, would've been to flip an override switch that would've allowed him to change gears manually -- a strategy that compromises some onboard systems, mainly the electronic clutch.

Of chief concern to Castroneves was whether the car's pit lane speed limiter (which would keep him to 60 mph) would still work. When his team assured him that it would, Castroneves' confidence launched into top gear. In the split second when he was waved off pit row, and punched the throttle and his car roared but went nowhere, he didn't panic. "I went straight to the switch, dropped it into first gear and took off," he says. "I was getting to the pits with the emergency switch on, [punching] the clutch, [engaging] first gear, then disengaging the system. I had the rhythm back. After that I just told the guys, 'Put me in the front.'"

And they did, steadily nudging him from sixth place to second. There was no more holding him back after that.

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