season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in Florida. The race, run on a 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course, airs at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
The driver I’ve got in my sights? That would be Will Power (how’s that for a racing name?), the reigning series champion. He is also my garage mate at Team Penske—which, to some, might seem awkward. Whatever resources he has, I have—so he must truly be better than me, right?
I don’t see it that way, though. I look at it more as though my A-game is bringing out the best in Will—a problem any organization would love to have, really. Expect me to push him even harder now that my engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, our group and I have spent the off-season fine tuning the little things. In Indy racing, it’s all about the details. To win consistently, you’ve got to get them right.
Perhaps the most important thing I worked on this off-season was getting healthy. During the ’14 season, I suffered a fluke injury to my hamstring. It wouldn’t really bother me until I was out of the cockpit and hobbling around the house—where I became an unlikely punchline for my girlfriend, Adriana—who ran the New York City Marathon last fall. (I’m supposed to be the resident fitness freak!)
It would take about two months before I got to where I am now, back at 100%. (If I were 10 years younger, I probably would’ve recovered faster!) I’m happy to report that I’m back to my routine of running and pushing myself in the gym. Fitness is going to be especially important for me this year, as I turn 40. For the record: I still feel like I’m 20, which is how old I was when I left Brazil to pursue my dream of becoming a racecar driver.
In fact, that journey nearly came full circle when IndyCar announced a season-opening race in Brasilia. Sadly, those plans fell through. I’m upset that I wasn’t able to race on home soil (even though I’ve done it many times already), and I ache for the fans who spent good money on travel, hotel accommodations and tickets. The thing is, we—IndyCar—were all ready to come down. However, there were things in Brazil that were out of our control and we were dealt a late-hour setback.
No matter. We’ll press on to St. Pete, our usual opening venue. Actually, it’s a nice tradition. The atmosphere is great and so are the fans, who seem to come down in droves just to escape the cold weather. And then there’s the fact that every time I come to St. Pete, I do well. Throw out the two 20th-place showings among my nine career starts, and my average finish there is 2.0. So, yeah, I’m stoked—which is how they say excited in Will’s native Australia.
Actually, I’ve had to pick up a few foreign colloquialisms while driving for Team Penske, which has become sort of a racing United Nations for genuine characters. Along with me—the veteran—there’s Will, the Aussie (second from left in photo above) and the resident funny guy, which is no surprise given that his younger brother, Damien, is a stand-up comic Down Under. Then you have Juan Pablo Montoya (left), a Colombian racing god (he has raced in Formula 1 and in NASCAR, among many other places) who is the needler in our bunch; he’s the guy who makes you wonder, Did he really mean that? Rounding out our group is team rookie Simon Pagenaud (second from right), who finished fifth in the IndyCar series last year. He is also French, which is fun to remind him of whenever he’s being a grump. On the track, I can't wait for these guys to come out swinging. I’ll just be bobbing and weaving, bobbing and weaving.
They will be stiff competition for me, for sure. But so will the guys outside of Penske. In particular, the Target Chip Ganassi team will be a formidable challenger. It has shown that already in some early tests. The team had a bit of a down year last year while changing its engine program over to Chevy. That’s always going to be a process, but you could see how smoothly they handled it just by how strong they rallied during the last leg of the season—especially Scott Dixon, who is an incredible driver.
Another thing that figures to be a process—not just for Ganassi, but for all of us—is adapting to the new aerodynamic package that IndyCar has introduced this year. If there was a takeaway from offseason testing, it’s that the new package is going to require some alterations to my driving style. Because the add-ons have made the cars so much faster, now I’m entering corners quicker. What’s more, the car reacts differently in clean air and in traffic. There are so many new habits to learn. The upshot is that everybody has had to hit the reset button.
So you can see why I’m so excited to get this season started. For more updates, you’ll have to come back and visit me before race weekends here on SI.com, where I will hold court on all things IndyCar and, occasionally, some things not. (Stay tuned.) As for my other plans for the 2015 season, those remain as ambitious as ever: win the Indy 500 and win the series championship. That would definitely put an even bigger smile on my face—and get me dancing again.
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.