IndyCar's longest tenured full-time driver has lofty goals for 2011
Helio Castroneves will make his 148th start in the IZOD IndyCar Series in the season-opening race Sunday at St. Petersburg, breaking a tie with Scott Sharp for most in the history of the series. The three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 is also the longest tenured full-time driver in IndyCar, entering his 10th season -- all with Team Penske -- and, including his four entire seasons in CART's Champ Car Series, 15th at the top level of American open-wheel racing.
Castroneves isn't sure he likes the sound of all that seniority. He doesn't want anybody to think he's an IndyCar senior citizen.
"I don't know if it's good or bad," he said. "You might tell me I'm too old, look at how many races I have. I'm not at old at all."
Castroneves is 35 and will reach 36 on May 10. It's hard to imagine the energetic, ebullient and effervescent driver ever getting old. He has an indomitable spirit, a zest for life and, in particular, for driving race cars fast. When Castroneves wins, he goes looking for the nearest fence to climb to celebrate.
He shows no signs of his world-class skills deteriorating. He won three races a year ago (one on a road course; two on ovals) and finished fourth in the championship. He has 25 victories and at least one in 11 straight seasons in IndyCar and CART. At the IndyCar open test earlier this month at Barber Motorsports Park, where Castroneves won a year ago, he was fastest of the 24 drivers.
Castroneves' passion is still there, too. It was on full display last year in Edmonton after IndyCar President of Competition Brian Barnhart ruled Castroneves had blocked on a late restart, forcing Barnhart to take away his apparent victory. Castroneves was outwardly angry for one of the few times in his career as he confronted IndyCar officials.
For all of his achievements, Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship. He was second in 2002 and 2008, third in 2003 and 2006. It's on his to-do list for 2011, along with a fourth Indy 500 victory.
"I want to win more races, that's what drives me," Castroneves said. "I want to win the championship and to accomplish something only three other drivers [A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears] have done [win four Indy 500s] would be a dream come true. I know with the team I have, it can be done."
"I think I'm still learning, believe it or not. It's like a computer, you update your technique and make it better. You keep pushing, try to find different lines and find different areas where you can be better."
Teammate Will Power overshadowed Castroneves a year ago by winning five races, all on road courses, and finishing second to Dario Franchitti in the championship. Teammate Ryan Briscoe had been Penske's title contender in 2009, finishing third. Castroneves understands how it works at Penske, where he has driven longer than any driver other than Rick Mears: equal equipment and an open book. Castroneves says Power and Briscoe have helped him become a better driver.
"Will and Ryan are two great drivers and they have helped me change my style and make it better," Castroneves explained. "We hope it's an internal battle for the championship, one-two-three Penske. It's good, healthy competition and we want to give Roger the championship he deserves."
Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will certainly have something to say about who wins the 2011 title and, perhaps, some other drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan.
Castroneves' loyalty to team owner Roger Penske is deep rooted. He was a relatively obscure driver who had spent two years in IndyCar with the mid-pack Bettenhausen and Hogan teams and was facing unemployment as he walked around the California Speedway in Fontana during the 1999 CART finale.
Tragedy struck on Sunday when Greg Moore, driving his last race for the Forsythe team, was killed in a horrific crash. Penske had signed him to a long-term contract starting in 2000 and needed a driver. Castroneves hadn't won a race in his two CART seasons, but he'd shown potential and he had been a race winner in Firestone Indy Lights. He was regarded as the best available and Penske signed him the next week.
Castroneves won three races in his first season with Penske. He stuck.
"I'm honored for the trust Roger has had in me," Castroneves said. "Not only from racing, but from the business side, too. It's a great match. The chemistry is working, why change? I'm honored to be part of it.
"I don't see Roger every day, but when I need it, for sure, he's always a person ready to talk and make suggestions if you need it. Whatever he asks me for, I'm not thinking twice about doing it. He's not only my boss, but my friend as well."
In late 2008, the U.S. Attorney in Miami indicted Castroneves, his sister, Kati, and his attorney, Alan Miller, on multiple counts relating to tax evasion. Miller had also represented Moore. In the anguish-filled week following Moore's death, Castroneves signed the same agreement with Penske that Moore had.
That contract had run out in 2003 and included a clause that allowed Castroneves to defer tax payments on $5 million of his income by sending it to an account in Europe. Even though Castroneves had never received any of the money -- it was still in the account -- the U.S. Attorney charged Castroneves with owing $2.3 million in back taxes, plus interest and penalties. He charged Kati Castroneves and Miller with assisting in the scheme.
Helio Castroneves was found not guilty of all but one count in April 2009, which resulted in a hung jury, and the U.S. Attorney decided not to refile the remaining count. Kati Castroneves and Miller were found not guilty on all counts. Privately, some legal authorities believe it was a prosecution that should never have happened, that an overzealous U.S. Attorney had tried to make an example out of a star athlete. Castroneves' profile had been raised in the public when he won ABC's Dancing with the Stars in 2007, 11 months before the indictment.
Castroneves is Brazilian and had he been convicted, he faced time in jail and then deportation. It would have been the end to his career. It also cost him (and Miller, too) a fortunate in legal fees.
"I do think about it from time to time," Castroneves said. "It won't go away, the scar is always going to be there. It was a very difficult time, but I try to take the positive away from it, the friends I have around me, my beautiful little girl [Mikaella]. I'm just so blessed. But I'll never forget what happened, it will always be with me."
Castroneves' experience with fighting the tax fraud charges did not spoil his attitude about living in America. He's a permanent U.S. resident and has divested his business interests, which included being part of a group that brought Burger King to Brazil. Castroneves plans on pursuing American citizenship.
"I love this country," Castroneves said. "It recognized my talent and I'm grateful for the opportunity it gave me. I will apply for citizenship. I want to be here for a long time."
Penske kept this seat open during Castroneves' trial and he was back at work at Long Beach the day after acquittal. Six weeks later, he won his third Indy 500.
It's back to business this weekend for Castroneves, IndyCar race No. 148 and counting. "We're ready to get started with the season," he said.