It was always a question of when the rumor would enter print, and it happened this weekend in the corn fields of Iowa.
For a couple months, it’s percolated under the surface and then has come to a more substantial boil: Team Penske is working towards bringing back a sports car program, but neither the team nor the associated manufacturers will say officially that it’s happening, yet.
And the rumor was that along with Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves might also be in the frame for one of those full-time sports car seats if (when) the team debuts for a full season in 2018.
The shift from open-wheel racing to sports cars is as common a ritual in racing as the hopeless but naive young driver posting a hopeful mid-December tweet they are actually close to making a deal happen, and a manufacturer complaining just before a major endurance race they don’t have the right Balance of Performance.
But the aforementioned shift doesn’t – or wouldn’t – usually happen when a guy is still at the top of his field in open-wheel racing, contending for a championship on an annual basis, and winning races.
This is the dilemma and potential crossroads Helio Castroneves may be finding himself at in mid-year 2017, after Juan Pablo Montoya was in a near identical position last year.
Both RACER and Autoweek reported over the weekend that the potential – or greater likelihood – exists that this will be Castroneves’ final full-time campaign in IndyCar. And certainly, if he wasn’t performing at the level he is now, and has been for the better part of his career, that rumor of a shift would be fully justified.
However here’s the thing: Nothing is done in racing until the press release hits your inbox, the i’s are dotted, t’s crossed, and shirts starched.
And a driver of Castroneves’ caliber, legacy, and character within IndyCar racing has, after 20 years, fully earned the right to call time on his IndyCar career on his terms, and his terms only.
Roger Penske has, after everything, shown nothing but unwavering support to the Florida-based Brazilian, who’s repaid him over the entirety of his career.
Save for his incident-laden 2011 season and his much-publicized tax issues end of 2008, Castroneves has never looked anything other than a potential champion-in-waiting – the age old story, of course, being that the full-season championship is the one thing missing from his otherwise sterling career resume.
In his 17 seasons with Team Penske prior to 2017, Castroneves has 13 top-five points finishes, and is well on his way to his 14th in 18 this year. The only four seasons he didn’t, he was sixth twice (2005, 2007), seventh in his first season (2000) in a year when he won three races, the most in the CART season, and then 11th in that winless, 2011 outlier.
His win today in Iowa ended Castroneves’ three-plus year winless drought, but it wasn’t as if this was a fluke. This was just the day when everything finally came together for him after three-plus years of races where wins often went away from him through no fault of his own.
Since that Detroit race two win in 2014, Castroneves banked eight runner-up finishes and five third places. He’s won 12 poles since that point too.
He had that runner-up finish at the Indianapolis 500 this year following a drive where he was running essentially a car in qualifying trim, with reduced downforce on his right rear wheel guard, and in a car down on power compared to Takuma Sato’s winning Honda… and still almost pulled it off.
So, this one was coming. Today in Iowa was just a day where it all went perfectly, finally.
“Finally everything came together,” Castroneves reflected in the post-race press conference. “Yeah, I appreciate more, but when I say like for the first time, it’s just like I remember this feeling before, and I didn’t think that climbing the fence would get a little bit harder this time.
“But it still had the same feeling looking at everybody’s face through the fence and everybody is excited for me. That’s a feeling that nobody can take away from you, and that’s what motivates me more to come back now and do what I just did.”
Castroneves led 217 laps and then used veteran racecraft to get past the talented but unlucky JR Hildebrand, who was in search of his first win, but got balked by traffic.
“Everything was always well-calculated. Today experience really paid off,” he explained. “I’m aggressive when I have to be, and I take it easy when I need to. I don’t know, but probably that’s one of the reasons we led today.”
While Team Penske has had a number of champions – Will Power and Simon Pagenaud exist within his current quartet, Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. won more in the 2000s and Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi carried the team in the 1990s – Castroneves has reached icon status within the Penske mold in the vain of a Rick Mears. Castroneves and Mears have delivered Penske nearly half his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, with seven combined between the two of them.
Very few drivers last 20 years in IndyCar and that’s even harder to achieve within the Penske mold; but this is Castroneves’ 18th season with “The Captain.” Mears retired in 1992 as a driver but has been Penske’s veteran driver sage/coach in the 25 years since, having long been Castroneves’ spotter.
Today, Castroneves scored his 30th career win, which put him one ahead of Mears.
“And 30 wins, we just passed Rick Mears, which is my hero, and getting close to win most of the team, which is great,” he said.
What Castroneves means to Penske is what Castroneves means to IndyCar: It’s hard to think of either entity without them.
It was a weird Sunday in St. Petersburg, 2009, when a then-lesser heralded Power made his Team Penske debut as a temporary fill-in driver for Castroneves in his usual No. 3 car. A race later at Long Beach, Castroneves had been cleared of tax evasion charges, was back in the No. 3 car, and Power shifted to a third car, the then-part-time No. 12 Verizon entry.
There’s been a lot of celebrating Castroneves and his longtime friend Tony Kanaan’s equal 20th seasons in IndyCar this year, but at no point has either campaign been hailed as a retirement tour or final act.
Ask Kanaan, who remains one of the fittest drivers in the series, about his future and he’ll say he wants – and plans – to keep driving in IndyCar for as long as he can, and as long as Chip Ganassi will let him.
And Castroneves? As recently as last year he’s told some in the media he wants to keep at this for several more seasons.
If his performance continues to match that desire, and so far, it has, then there’s no reason he should be making that transition that so many drivers do. Save for Pagenaud, now one of Castroneves’ teammates, you almost never come back to IndyCar once you’ve entered the sports car world on a full-time basis.
IndyCar hasn’t had a full-time season without either of them since 1997; for reference, that’s a year when the first Austin Powers movie premiered and Beavis and Butt-head concluded its seventh season before a 13-year hiatus and 2011 reboot.
Today was a reminder in winning form of just how good, today, the “Great Corn Helio” still is.
“I have to say I’m honored to be part of this organization, and I can only thank Roger, Cindric and the entire team to be supporting me,” he said.
“It’s easy to be behind you in good times, but they’ve always been there no matter the time, so for me that’s priceless. I’m going to continue focusing in this season, and there’s more to come.”