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Rio Olympics bring wistful feeling to Brazilian IndyCar drivers

For Helio Castroveves and Tony Kanaan, the Summer Games in Rio bring back memories of their years at Jacarepaguá, the racetrack that was once on the site of the Olympics.

Most of us, when we’re parked in front of the tube watching the Olympics and taking in all those glittering aerial shots of Olympic Park between commercial breaks, we let the craggy waterfront scene wash over us like a warm, salty wave off Copacabana Beach. Not Hélio Castroneves, a Brazilian by way of South Florida. No, he leans in. He squints. He searches: for the six-foot high grass and the vast asphalt esses that once snaked through it, for the rocket-like cars zipping around at breakneck speeds, for the immense Brazilian flags flapping in the grandstands. “It was nice,” he says. “I have phenomenal memories of that place.”

Before this western outcropping of Rio de Janeiro was the global epicenter of sport, it was a racetrack—Jacarepaguá. (Pronounced jah-kah-RAI-pah-gwah, with the R rolled for maximum effect.) And in its day Jacarepaguá was the beating heart of a motorsports superpower, at once a withering road course and punishing trapezoid-shaped oval—Brazil’s answer to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For Castroneves, it was home. And when he looks back on his experiences there, it’s with the wistfulness of a man looking over the penciled wall etchings of his growth that linger on a family room wall. “That was where I raced my first go-karts,” he says. “And also my first Formula 3 race was there. I raced IndyCar there as well, in 1998, 1999 and 2000.”

Castroneves, though you’d never know it from his bubbly vibe, is IndyCar’s second oldest pilot, a 41-year-old three-time Indianapolis 500 winner (in ’01, ’02 and ’09) who’s still running up front for the series’ top dog— Team Penske. He lags nearly eight months behind the series’ senior-most ace—Tony Kanaan, another Miami-Dade based Brazilian who won the Indy 500 (in ’13) and remains a force for Ganassi, a Penske nemesis. Like Castroneves, he buries his age under a mountain of positivity, and did a lot of growing up at Jacarepaguá, too. And now that it’s gone, well, he’s conflicted. “Yes, it’s a terrible thing for motorsports,” he says. “But think of the big picture, of what all of Brazil is getting with the Olympics.”

For a start, there were the tens of billions of dollars—the geopolitical equivalent of hitting the Powerball. And like a not insignificant number of big lotto winners Brazil has looked unlucky ever since. The economy collapsed. The president was impeached. Zika emerged as this day’s bubonic plague. Baked-in issues of class and corruption became international talking points as the Games approached, the conversations only growing more intense with every report of half-built venues, untended bodies of water and unchecked crime. The idea that Rio had lucked into hosting duty was an irony too rich for Brazil’s legion of first-world critics. They looked upon the mount, at that giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, and braced for the Rapture. “It just built up these really bad expectations,” Castroneves says, “like Brazil is gonna blow it.”

So what if it was a fairly tired Olympic dirge, that its chorus gets sung every two years—that Brazil has always swayed to its own frenetic beat. “I told a lot of people it’s going to be … chaotic,” says Castroneves.

Says Kanaan: “We call it The Brazilian Way. It’s hard, man. It’s hard when people don’t get paid. It’s hard when, in Rio, forty percent of that town lives in cartoon houses, and the others live inside the favelas. It’s hard when you have a cop that makes, I don’t know, not even $20,000 a year and a drug trafficker offers him $50,000 to turn his head away. I want critics to put themselves in those shoes. It’s not the people that are corrupt. It’s the mentality. It isn’t worse because we’re hosting the Olympics.”

It isn’t karmic payback for building the Games atop sacred racing ground, either.

Jacarepaguá, the site where the racetrack used to be.

Jacarepaguá, the site where the racetrack used to be.

Set upon a marshy inlet, Jacarepaguá was a quintessentially Brazilian works project. They started building it in 1971, abandoned construction for a stretch when the budget ran dry, then picked their hard hats up again and finished the job just before the end of the decade. It was just in time. Interlagos, the country’s premier circuit, had proven too perilous for its showcase event—Formula 1 racing. One of the series’ biggest stars, a Rio boy named Nelson Piquet, had emerged at a time when star drivers shot from the Brazil soil like so much sugar cane. The little bandeira that would appear next to a driver’s chryoned name was practically, says Castroneves, “a business card.”

When Castroneves was five, his father—also named Hélio and a weekend track warrior—used to dress him up in a firesuit and helmet, stuff him in the trunk and smuggle him onto pit lane. By age 10 he was lapping the Jacarepaguá road course. After a winding trip through Europe on the Formula ladder, he returned in 1998 to race at Jacarepaguá—which, by then, had been renamed for Piquet—in front of a home crowd that was so hungry for American open wheel racing that they built an oval on top of the road course.

Kanaan, who also got his start at Rio as a go-kart racer, started third on the grid that day, with Castroneves and six other Brazilians behind him. In that moment, Kanaan knew what it felt like to be not just any racing idol but the late Ayrton Senna, the track god turned national hero who favored Kanaan with a most incredible blessing. “It was like, whoa…I made it,” he says. “Having the entire racetrack, with all the fans cheering for you, that was a very, very unique experience that I will never forget.”

Sadly, it was not to last. All but one native son, Maurício Gugelmin, completed the race. By 2001 IndyCar stopped running there altogether. Apart from a handful of dates, the series hasn’t really turned laps in Brazil since. Plans to open the 2015 season in Brasília fell through when the government pulled funding at the last minute. By then, it was too late to detour to Rio. After Formula One abandoned Jacarepaguá following the ’89 Grand Prix for Interlagos (again), after just 10 F1 races, the track became a mostly empty preserve, then an eye sore—then a giant platform for the world’s largest sporting event. So it was razed in 2012, along with a chunk of the favela hard by the oval’s first turn, in the name of progress. For Castroneves and Kanaan, it’s been quite a trip.

Nelson Piquet in action during the 1986 Grand Prix of Brazil at Jacarepaguá.

Nelson Piquet in action during the 1986 Grand Prix of Brazil at Jacarepaguá.

Unable to travel back for the Games due to a raft of team and sponsorship commitments, the boys from Brazil can only look on from afar. They live through family and friends who are much closer to the action. Kanaan, between his nine-year-old son Leo (who’s attending many events live) and his brother-in-law (who’s sending back the behind-the-scenes video he puts together for his production company), feels as immersed as one can without actually being in Rio. When the Games finally kicked off with last week’s Opening Ceremonies, “I was biting my nails,” says Castroneves. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Neither did Kanaan. But then he talked to his mom, a retiree who lives in Rio. After the Opening Ceremonies, her neighbor reached out asking if she’d be willing to rent out her place to a pair of European couples who couldn’t find a hotel in town. “Ehhh, if it’s for the right money,” she said.

“She’s in São Paulo with my sister now,” Kanaan says.

In other words nothing’s happened that doesn’t always happen during the Games: People are still coming in droves and spending money like drunks. Sure, there are plenty of unresolved local issues.Crime is literally breaching the media bubble, protests rage on the periphery of the Games, and water pollution—already a clear (ahem) and present danger to Copacabana Beach goers—has spread to the indoor facilities. Lord knows what will become of Olympic Park in four years' time. But, hey, this is simply the Brazilian Way, what sportocrats get for sticking a crown jewel sporting event in a country teetering on the brink. What’s more, Kanaan notes, “Zika just arrived in America. So, now what.”

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No matter the levels of dysfunction, it seems, the Games rise above all because the Games are damn good entertainment, overwhelming in every sense. “There are so many sports,” says Castroneves, who passed on an invitation to carry the Olympic torch through his hometown of Ribeirão Preto because it came during the month of May. “One night I was flipping channels and watched Ping-Pong. The Brazilians, they actually won! In gymnastics there was a lady, 41 years old, and she’s competing. How cool is that?

“That fascinates me, to see people so focused: the team of refugees, the judoka from here, South Florida, who lost and was obviously upset afterward. But then she’s like, ‘I’m gonna wait four years to go again.’ Four years. My god, that’s crazy! I can’t even wait a year to race the Indy 500 again.”

For Kanaan, these Games have been a fun binge-watch, too. And still his thoughts turn to the one sports figure who should be in Rio but isn’t. “Obviously Senna was the biggest supporter of athletes from Brazil,” he says. “Every time he won races, he made sure he brought his flag. I mean, he cared about his country. During the Opening Ceremonies, 100 percent in my mind I believe that if he was still alive he was gonna be the guy who was gonna light the torch. He may not be around, but he’s still a very influential person in Brazil. I mean, I have no doubt that he would be the man of the Olympics—which is funny because racing is not even an Olympic sport.”

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Many don’t even consider it an actual sport. Never mind that Castroneves and Kanaan train like triathletes year-round just to keep pace with their younger rivals. Or that they engage in true life-and-death competitions, a fact that rang true again with the sudden, recent passing of part-time Indy driver Bryan Clauson in a Sprint car crash. “I’ve been thinking about that, reflecting on that,” says Castroneves. “If something bad happens, trust me, I prefer being on the racetrack than actually crossing the street.”

Sacrifice is the tie that binds the racing driver to the Olympics. Without it, we’d not only be watching an altogether different spectacle. We’d be missing the great lesson that Brazil has to teach us. “I want people to understand that although with every adversity that we have there—the poverty, everything—we’re still able to have fun,” Kanaan says. “I hope we send a message to the world that we can put something together despite how bad or good our lives are.

“Our people, they suffer so much that when they have time to enjoy themselves or to create something, even if it’s for two hours or a day or a week, they have this capability of blocking off all the bad stuff and saying, You know what? It’s bad, but this is a chance that I can have fun for a minute and forget about everything that I have bad in my life and what’s going on in my country. Let’s enjoy it."