They are the closest of friends, so tight that they tend to
complete each other's thoughts like an old married couple. Gil
de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, drivers for the IRL's Team
Penske, grew up in Brazil racing on dusty tracks, and they now
lead the good life in South Florida. Along with their
significant others de Ferran and Castroneves often dine with the
beautiful people in South Beach, and on lazy afternoons they
like to barbecue at de Ferran's house along a Fort Lauderdale
canal. However, the limits of that friendship were tested four
days before the 87th Indy 500 when, while dining at Dunaway's in
Indianapolis, de Ferran was asked what he would do if he were
leading the race on the last lap and Castroneves were right
behind him. Would he let his buddy, who was attempting to win an
unprecedented third straight Indy 500, pass him?
"I think you should lift off the pedal," Castroneves interjected
before de Ferran could answer. "That would be a very good
thing--especially for me!"
"In your dreams," replied a grinning de Ferran.
On Sunday at the Brickyard, de Ferran stayed true to his word.
After passing Castroneves with 30 laps to go, he held off his
teammate by less than .3 of a second to win his first Indy
500--and hand owner Roger Penske a record 13th. It was an
improbable victory. Four weeks ago the 35-year-old de Ferran
wasn't sure if he would even be in the field. On March 23 he
suffered a concussion and two broken vertebrae in his neck and
back when he slammed into the wall during a race at Phoenix
International Raceway. For the next month de Ferran spent four
hours a day submerged in his backyard pool. "I was afraid my
career might be over," he says.
But de Ferran healed faster than he had thought possible and in
early May was cleared by doctors to go to Indy. "I was in pain
[during the race]," said de Ferran, a two-time CART champ before
jumping to the IRL last season. "My shoulders, halfway through
the race, started cramping."
De Ferran's victory came at a crucial moment in open-wheel racing
history. Seven years after its bitter split with CART, the IRL
has won the war, primarily because its rival has been unable to
create a signature race with the cachet of the 500. Over the last
two years, under pressure from sponsors and lured by the lower
costs of fielding an IRL team, most of CART's major players--most
notably Penske and Chip Ganassi--have joined hands with Brickyard
president Tony George, their onetime enemy. With CART gasping for
air (the series reportedly lost $9 million in the first quarter
of this year), the IRL is suddenly talking about ways in which to
win over fans from NASCAR.
"I've talked to all sorts of NASCAR people who can't believe that
our guys are able to run so close together for so long," says
Penske, who also co-owns a successful Winston Cup team that
includes drivers Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. "We have more
passing than NASCAR and more lead changes, which makes for good
Just as important to IRL's rise is that for the first time in
recent memory open-wheel racing boasts the precious commodity of
young, appealing personalities. Telegenic, quick to puddle up in
Victory Lane and possessing a smile that makes women weak in the
knees, the 28-year-old Castroneves is the rare foreign driver
who's become a favorite of U.S. racing fans. "Every time we go
out, many, many people will talk to Helio," says Castroneves's
girlfriend, model Isabela Fiorentino. "I didn't know racers could
be so famous in this country."
Castroneves's chief rival on the IRL circuit over the last two
years has been Sam Hornish Jr., who appeared headed for a top
five finish on Sunday before his engine blew late in the race.
The 23-year-old Hornish won the IRL season championships in 2001
and '02 and is as much a homebody as Castroneves is a playboy. He
pays his parents $400 a month to live above their garage in
Defiance, Ohio, and his idea of a perfect night is to either go
bowling with his buddies or work on restoring his '67 Chevy
pickup. In other words, Hornish is a lot like the people who fill
But having built up its talent base, can the IRL keep its best
drivers from jumping to other racing circuits, where they can
reap greater fame and fortune? Castroneves, whose deal with
Penske lasts through 2004, often speaks wistfully of racing in
Formula One. Hornish's contract with Panther Racing is up at the
end of this season, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. reportedly is
interested in his services. It is the lure of NASCAR that
particularly concerns the IRL, which lost a potential mega-star
when Tony Stewart defected to Winston Cup racing in 1998. "Our
guys who have left have become stars overnight in NASCAR," says
Penske. "We need our drivers to stay, be highly visible and
No driver was more visible on Sunday than de Ferran. After he
struggled to lift himself out of his car in Victory Lane, the
tears rolled down his face. Then, reprising Castroneves's
hallmark Spider-Man celebration, de Ferran and the runner-up
scaled the fence that separates the Brickyard stands from the
track. Ninety minutes later the two friends stood on a catwalk
some 40 feet above the stands as a crush of fans called out their
names. That's when Castroneves leaned into de Ferran and asked,
"Why did you cry when you won?"
After looking up into the gray sky for a moment, de Ferran
replied, "I guess I wanted to be like you."
On Sunday, he was.
says of IRL, "WHICH MAKES FOR GOOD RACING."