Helio Castroneves: Illness no barrier to the thrill of my 300th start
Greetings from Indianapolis! So sorry to go so long without checking in. It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, with even more excitement still to come as I prepare to make my 300th (!) career start in Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis. (It airs at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.) You might say it’s more excitement than my body can stand at the moment.
I’ve been battling a bout of bronchitis and feverish spells. Last weekend, my temperature spiked to 101 degrees! It was just awful. Popping Tylenols, which is about the safest thing you can swallow without tripping the drug testers, only masks my symptoms—so I’m taking some antibiotics, too. The fever went down, but the cough is still going. The important thing is at least I can sleep through the night now. I should be back in shipshape by green flag.
I don’t get sick a lot. But when I do, I always want to ask other athletes—like baseball and basketball players—what do you do? At least I have the No. 3 Verizon Chevrolet. The car is the one performing. When I jump in there and close my helmet visor, I’m so focused. The coughing stops. The car is the best medicine!
It has shown in my performances, which have been consistently robust all year—though I’m still chasing my first checkered flag of the season. I thought I might get it in the road course race at Avondale, La., back in April. That was really interesting because of the wet weather. I have to say the fans were incredible to stick around despite the rain. It’s certainly not the experience we wanted to give them in our first ever race there.
That said, it was actually a really good race for Team Penske’s No. 3 car squad. We had a really good strategy that allowed us to overcome the difficult conditions on the track and a surprise yellow flag that sent us to the back of the grid. We finished second, which is great for the points standings.
Following that race was another on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., a place that I love. My engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, and I put together another great strategy there too. We landed on the pole and were leading the race with no problem until I was held up in lap traffic and in the pits. We finished second there too—again, not bad. We’re just getting closer to where we want to be.
After that was another road course race in Birmingham, Ala. There, we landed on pole again and opened the race in a great rhythm. But a flurry of yellows gradually took us out of it. What’s more, I got a bit confused at the end while receiving directions over the radio. I couldn’t tell whether they wanted me to go all out or save fuel. All I heard was Push, push, push! After trying to get lead I decided to try to make the fuel number. But, in doing so, our position sank from fourth to 15th. That stung a little bit, but it’s OK. This type of scenario, you can build from. We won’t get our wires crossed again.
Now we’re here in the Circle City for the next two-plus weeks for two huge races at the Brickyard—Sunday’s Grand Prix and, naturally the Indy 500, which feels a lot closer than just over two weeks away. The GP, as I mentioned, will mark my 300th IndyCar grid appearance. It’s funny, I never thought about the number 300. But I always said I want to race as long as I can. I am so fortunate and will be so fortunate to be able to wake up on Sunday morning and, for the 300th time, go out there and do what I love.
And my team—my team!—is so amazing. A lot of the names and the faces have changed over the years, but two who have endured are team president Tim Cindric and, of course, The Captain—Roger Penske. It’s just great—an honor, really—to be able to celebrate this milestone with them. They’ve been with me from the beginning.
Sunday is definitely going to be a more emotional day at the track than usual for me. The 300th start is going to feel a lot more like that first one in Homestead, Fla., back in March of 1998, than all the others in between. Still, you have to remember: I’m an old dog too, now. This isn’t my first rodeo. I still get butterflies in my stomach. But these days, they fly in formation.
That’s the difference that comes from experience. I know what it takes to jump in the car and make some times that will lead to great results. But I’m still having as much fun and pushing just as hard as I was when I was starting out.
Speaking of just starting out, Sunday will also mark the second running of the GP of Indy. Traditionally, the month of May is all about the 500. When the GP race was added to the schedule last year, it took some getting used to. Not only did we have to recalibrate and prepare for two events, but the races—the first being on a road course, and the second being the ultimate oval endurance challenge—couldn’t have been more different.
But our team has adjusted. We know how to pace out our objectives so that we can keep our positive momentum going through Memorial Day weekend. And we’re having a ball experimenting with this new aero package on the oval. Not that we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves with that.
There’s still that emotional 300th start to make on Sunday in the fantastic-looking Verizon Chevrolet. Not only is it beautiful with the metallic grey paint scheme, it’s also very fast. We will start from the third position and I know we can win from there. If you see me start to shiver during driver introductions, it’s not because the fever’s back. It’s because I still can’t believe this boy from Brazil could stay at the top of this game for so long. And, just to be clear, I’m far from finished. I hope I can keep doing this 300 more times.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.