Helio Castroneves: Slim margin for error at IndyCar, NASCAR speeds

IndyCar's Helio Castroneves explains why spectacular crashes like Austin Dillion's at Daytona are almost inevitable in racing due to aerokits. 
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MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Greetings from Cheesehead country! I hope everyone had a good Fourth of July weekend while the Verizon IndyCar Series was off last week. If you didn’t, or if you feel like you didn’t get enough fireworks ahead of what figures to be a firecracker of an oval race this Sunday on the Milwaukee Mile (coverage starts at 5 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN), I’ve got you more than covered on Instagram. Like a lot of my posts there, these just sort of happened.

I was at a golf course in South Florida with family and friends, enjoying the show—so much so that after a while I was like, Let’s take a chance and share this with the fans. So I hit record, again and again. I didn’t realize just how much I had captured until after I uploaded my videos, some 18 in all. That’s when I was like, OK, I think I may have overdone it a little. But it’s Fourth of July! Come on! It was funny, and I got a good ribbing on social media for embracing my inner Scorsese. Overall, though, it was a great time and a fun weekend. It’s amazing how one week off makes you miss racing so soon. I would like to see a schedule where we’re on one week and off the next. It would give us a chance to properly recharge our batteries going into each race. Fingers crossed, that’ll be the case going forward. We’ll see.

Speaking of pyrotechnics, racing certainly hasn’t been lacking in that area. Last Sunday, we saw Austin Dillon fly up over two rows of traffic on the last lap of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona, crash into the catch fence, land upside down in a spinning, smoking heap and live to tell the tale.

Then the Saturday before that, during our last IndyCar race at Fontana and also on the final lap, we saw Ryan Briscoe skid off the track, catch air, tumble on the infield grass and live to tell the tale, too.


Such are the risks of pack racing.

And I would know. Not long before Ryan’s afternoon was ruined, he basically ruined mine. The trouble started a little more than halfway through the race, while Graham Rahal was fighting me for the lead. Even though I had already committed to a racing line that made use of the top lane through some turns, Graham found the smallest gap in the world, put his nose there, and squeezed me off course.

To spare the two of us from coming together right then and there, I had to put my car on the seams of the racetrack (which was the worst position to be in at that stage) and ease up on the throttle (which is something you try not to do during a race). In typical race circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have put his nose there. But now when you have drivers who can’t really get away from one another because of the restrictions of the new aero kit, which you could really see and feel on Fontana’s massive two-mile oval, the gentlemen’s agreements go out the window.

• IndyCar's aerokits explainedSI Now: Montoya on the aerokit

What you’re left with are guys making risky moves and chopping up the air. And then if someone does that to you, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna pay it back. Hence all the complaining you heard after the race. We have great racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series and with a little tinkering we can make it better and safer if we all work together on it.

Anyway, I lift. Graham surges into the lead. I fall all the way back to third, where I was drawn into a battle with my Penske teammate Will Power. As I’m resettling underneath Will, Ryan sneaks in underneath me, and this creates a major disturbance in the surrounding air. His car gets sucked into mine, and I bounce up into Will's and spin off the racetrack.

The accident bent my suspension, which I had to go back behind the wall to repair, but didn’t affect Will’s car at all—and that was a surprise given how hard we came together. Even though my team worked hard, as usual, to get my car back on track, their heroic effort was not enough. I came in dead last. What’s worse, Graham and I swapped places in the standings. Now he’s fourth and I’m fifth. Only four points separate us. So frustrating.

Why? Because we led the second most laps, 43. Because my car was super. I could go to the front whenever I wanted. I could run wherever I wanted. In fact, while everyone else seemed to abandon the bottom lane after their new tires were spent in about 20 laps, my car ran better down there than up top. For the first time all season, I had found the perfect balance.

Then Ryan came along and it all went away. I might’ve felt inclined to vent some of that frustration on him if Ryan hadn’t been so quick to admit to the mistake, apologize for it and talk through the whole scenario. I’ll always—always—have more respect for somebody like that then for someone who’s always making excuses. Oh, you should've given me more space! Oh, you should've have lifted off!

In Ryan’s defense, however, sometimes it’s not even the driver who's moving the car on purpose. Sometimes it’s the cars reacting to the seams on the track. Our cars handle so sharply that even the slightest change in the surface can cause it to suddenly move, requiring the driver to react in response. That’s why I feel like when we’re packed together so closely, we can’t operate under the slim margins for error that we do otherwise. The gaps have to be so much wider to cushion us from crashing.

Helio Castroneves: I'm lucky to be O.K. after my scary IndyCar crash

All that said, our wrecks had nothing on Austin Dillon’s. Pro tip: Anytime you see an engine block and the drivetrain away from the car, you know the accident was very big. And then Brad Keselowski, another of my Penske teammates, comes in at the end and smashes into Dillon. Exactly what happened there was a curiosity of mine. (Keselowski has since explained that he did everything in his power to avoid Dillon.)

If the same event that happened to Dillon had happened in an open wheel race, I think we are talking about a different outcome. Lucky for them their cars have roofs, which I think really helped Dillon in this event. (Unfortunately, roofs can’t also shelter the fans from harm, which is the issue that NASCAR is dealing with now.) 

Even though Dillon would cite speed as the biggest factor in the accident, I don’t think that had as much to do with it. I think it’s more a matter of downforce. You’ve got to dial it back, make the car a little bit more difficult to drive. The same goes for our series.

Of course there are always going to be some events that are just plain tough to avoid, like Ryan’s last lap crash. As he’s sliding from the track to the infield grass, he takes a bump that creates this ball of air under the car and sets him aloft. Maybe we should have some type of flaps like you see in NASCAR that when the car goes backwards, even if it jumps high, those flaps open and stop the car and keep it planted firmly on the ground. We all lived, so let’s start learning.

As for other takeaways from the Fontana race, I feel like I at least have a much firmer sense of what it will take to win this weekend at Milwaukee—a venue that is near and dear to my heart. Milwaukee is the place where I achieved my first ever podium finish: a second place in 1998. (And that was on my first try!) The very next year, I locked up my very first ever pole position there. I just really love the place.

It has just one flaw: I’ve never won there! In fact, my best ever finish there was second—which I got again more than two years ago. Through 14 career starts, I’ve had many ups and downs: I’ve been leading races and seen my car’s wings fall off. I’ve been let down late—last year, most recently. It’s a place that never fails to surprise me.

This year, though, I feel like we’ve had such great cars that I might finally be able to break with tradition and surprise the track for a change. And if indeed I do, you can bet that my celebration will be one to rival the explosive displays I captured on Independence Day.

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.