IndyCar's Helio Castroneves describes his scary practice crash at Indianapolis Speedway and what caused it.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Greetings from Indianapolis! Yes, I’m still in Indianapolis—even after my brief flight. Maybe you heard? I took an aerial tour of the Brickyard earlier this week.
It happened during the first hour of practice on Wednesday. There I was, screaming down the straightaway in No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet, about to enter the first bend. At this particular point, I wasn’t even taking a chance with the car. As I’m entering the corner, I see that I’m not really turning, that I’m still going straight. Then all of a sudden, I’m spinning out and barreling toward the short chute wall.
As soon as I realize that’s where I’m going, I get my hands off the wheel as quickly as possible and brace for impact. I was expecting a big shot. When, really, nothing happened—because the crash came later in the corner—I was like, Oh. That wasn’t that bad! I’m thinking I’m just going to spin out some more or keep going backwards until I run out of momentum. When I start lifting off, I was like What. Is. Happening. As soon as I see the sky, I’m like, Oh snap. I’m a bird.
Because I’ve been in this position before—in the air, mid-backflip—I’m thinking, Man, the landing is really gonna hurt. When I ultimately came down to earth—on my back bumper pods before rolling right side up—I opened my eyes, climbed out of the cockpit, stepped down onto the track and looked at the wreckage like, How did that happen?
Meanwhile, my team owner, Roger Penske is in my ear. “Are you O.K.?” Yeah, I was O.K. I was surprised I was O.K. Even as I sit here, I can’t believe I’m O.K. Thank God all those prayers at night worked because—let me tell you, to come out of that wreck without a scratch? I mean, I’m not even sore. The power of God. I’m pretty religious, and I’m telling you He made that impact smooth, that landing smooth.
It’s really quite something to go through an event like that. And now, thanks to the many cameras that were trained on me when it happened, you can ride along with me.
They have so many cameras—and from every perspective: on top of me, facing me, the wider angles of the track. I was trying to describe to my team exactly what happened when a replay of the crash from my perspective flashed onscreen. Yes! This. This is exactly what I was seeing! Everybody’s kinda laughing, and I’m really happy that we can laugh about it now.
Certainly, it took a while for my family to appreciate the humor in my minor calamity. Right away, I spoke with my wife, Adriana. I spoke to my sister, Kati. I eventually spoke to my parents. My mom in particular was very disturbed by what she saw. I had to say, Mom. I just turned 40 last Sunday. I am a grown man. I don’t need to be out here playing games. I’m not some young kid going out there trying to be brave to prove a point. If I don’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t go out there. I wouldn’t have gone back out there, after getting cleared by the IU Health Infield Care Center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the last 20 minutes of practice, turned 11 laps in our backup car and finished mid-pack on the speed chart if I wasn’t 100 percent healthy and relaxed. So just keep doing what you’re doing, Mom—praying for your boy. Because of that, I’m able to do what I do. And I generally get my way at Indy. It’s like home to me. This was a reminder that even at home, you can slip and fall.
As for what caused the stumble, we are not exactly sure yet. I’m still adapting to this new aero kit, just like everyone else, and the learning curve hasn’t just been steep for me. Also on Wednesday, just after my scare, Pippa Mann spun out exiting turn four, smashed into a wall just in front of pit lane and pinballed off of the pit lane attenuator before finally crashing to rest into a frontstretch wall. (She wasn’t seriously injured either.) Then on Thursday, Josef Newgarden wiped out in a fashion that was eerily similar to the way I did—flipping over and catching air and everything. (He’s fine, too.)
I can’t speak to their experiences, but in mine, I’m finding that the numbers that our engineers are seeing have been different from what I’ve been feeling in the cockpit. On my doomed run, we tried a setup that we thought would hit a sweet spot, an option we never tried before. It really caught me by surprise because I didn’t think that option would be that bad. If I did, I wouldn’t have even tried it. I mean, the car wasn’t nearly as loose as it would normally have to be for something like that to happen. All that said, understand: I’m not blaming anyone. This is the first oval that we’re running with these types of bodies. We’re just out here trying to discover the winning combination. Unfortunately, I paid the price.
And, as it turns out, it was the second one I wound up paying on Wednesday. Less than an hour before my crash, I was docked eight points for the crash I was involved in at the start of last Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis. (Editor’s note: Even with the penalty, Castroneves remains third in the standings, with 153 points, behind Penske teammates Juan Pablo Montoya’s 171 and Will Power’s 166.)
I’m certainly not happy about it. I know I did everything in my power to stop the car, to avoid the contact. In fact, I didn’t even damage my front wing.
I was served with an on-track citation then, which shuffled me to the back of the pack and—ahem—took the air out of my third-place qualifying position, but we recovered well and finished sixth. The thing that I can’t understand is why it took them so long to punish me again. They had the whole race to do something, and after too. And in the days immediately following, there were many opportunities to serve justice. But eight points? I don’t think the penalty fits the crime. The team has appealed. We’ll see what happens.
I can’t worry myself with that. Right now, my focus is on qualifying this weekend. Rick Mears, the legendary Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner that I’m trying to join in Brickyard lore, always says there are two types of races at Indy—the actual 500 and qualifying. It’s just the most stressful day. You’re not just driving the car on the edge. You're driving it on the edge several times. And then there’s all that idle time waiting in line, where the tension really builds up. You take three cracks on Saturday, and then on Sunday you really have to go for your best nine laps.
It’s just an amazing day, so much fun—and what’s more, I know we’re ready for it. I feel even with the setback that we had we're still ahead of the game. The backup car is giving much more reliable feedback, and that means I’ll be able to relax and really relish the weekend. Believe it or not, after that crash, things are really looking up.
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.