By Helio Castroneves
Greetings from New Orleans! Would you believe that I’m here for work? Because I still can’t believe that the Verizon IndyCar Series will stage its first ever event here at the 2.7-mile, 13-turn NOLA Motorsports Park. The Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana, which starts on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. EDT and airs on NBC Sports Network, is sure to become one of the premier events here in a city known for big spectacles.
New Orleans, after all, is a town that keeps its visitors busy—with live music, with world-class restaurants, with strong drinks. So busy that you had to wonder whether our ear-splitting engines could create much of a buzz here in the Big Easy.
But I give the event organizers and promoters credit. They did their jobs. The first thing that was said to me when I stepped off the plane was, “Oh, are you here for the racing?” It’s the kind of thing I only tend to here at St. Pete (where we just were) or Indy (where we’ll be most of next month) or Detroit (where we’ll be after the Indy 500). It just goes to show why we have to keep taking the sport to new places. People want to get into IndyCar. They can’t help it. We put on a great show! This weekend, they’re guaranteed to see something they’ve never seen before—mostly because we’re entering this race while having to deal with so many unfamiliar elements.
There’s the new aero kit, which proved to be more of a challenge two weeks ago in St. Pete. We understood that it could possibly cause a lot of debris and force officials to wave the yellow flag so that cleanup crews could come through. (My biggest worry was punching a tire; then all of a sudden you’ve got to do an extra pit stop, and your race is over.) But some of those yellows we brought on ourselves. We’re not supposed to be using our front wing or rear bumpers to move people out of the way. We’re not NASCAR. When we do that, we’re obviously going to leave pieces all over the track. But keep in mind: That was the first race of the season. We’re trying to figure ourselves out as much as this new aero kit. Drivers are going to have to give and take a bit more so they don’t get damaged.
And then there’s the forecast for the next three days—which calls for 80-degree temperatures, 70 percent humidity and rain on Sunday. Unlike that other American racing series, we’re not inclined to let a precipitation stand in the way of a good race. The approach has to be sensible, though. If the rain comes early in the weekend, I say we practice in the wet. That way, we all at least know what our car is capable of. It helps that this week we’ll be on another road course, where the brake pedal gets as much abuse as the gas.
In that sense, my driving rhythm won’t be much different from than it was in St. Pete. (So that’s at least one familiar element I can bank on!) That race was a great start for Team Penske, for sure, with my teammates Juan Pablo Montoya finishing first, Will Power trailing just behind and me coming in fourth—a spot lower than I qualified. That’s not bad, but that’s not what I wanted. If I couldn’t win, I was at least hoping to join my teammates on the podium.
But I didn’t, mainly because it was very difficult to pass. I felt like my car was a little more sensitive behind other cars than it has been in the past. I know I had a faster car than Tony Kanaan, who came in third, but unfortunately I just couldn’t approach. This weekend, though, I expect we’ll have that corrected. It’s nothing that hard work can’t solve. That’s a trait we keep in surplus on the No. 3 team.
Hard work is what earned me a Mirrorball trophy on Dancing with the Stars. In fact, it’s rewarded many athletes who have appeared on the show and gone on to dust their celebrity competitors who maybe didn’t take the training aspect of the competition as seriously. We can’t help it. We’re hardwired to spend hours practicing a thing until we’re the best at it. And I think this approach has had a lasting influence on the show.
I could see it on Sunday, when I was finally able to catch up on the new season after so much traveling. Right away, Nastia Liukin, the Olympic gold-medal winning gymnast, jumped out. You know she’s going to be in the finals. The show was practically built for Olympians, who have the work ethic, the strength, the coordination, the charisma—the whole package to succeed on this stage. But she’s going to have her work cut out for her.
I was very surprised by the performance of Rumer Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She’s really good. Riker Lynch, the musician who was on Glee, is doing very well too. But the dancer who blew me away was Noah Galloway, the Army veteran who is a double amputee. Talk about going over the limit. I thought I had seen it all, but he is incredible. With one arm and one leg to be able to be very coordinated and strong? With two arms, I could not do what he does with one!
It’s crazy how super serious the show is becoming. Now, it seems like every contestant is like, I’m gonna go for it! Actually, I think they had to put some time limits on practice because they don’t want people working themselves to the point of injury or exhaustion anymore. I was surprised by that when I came back to the show in Season 25. I was like, This is kind of like IndyCar now, regulating the days and times you can practice! Still, the show has a long way to go before it catches us in the intensity department.
That’s why Sunday afternoon in the Crescent City is going to be so much fun. The IndyCar season is so young, and already there’s so much on the line. I can’t wait to let the good times roll.
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.