Banter, competitiveness fuel Helio, TK in 20th IndyCar seasons

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The word “retire” is often thrown around to describe Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, as the longtime friends and rivals are now almost a quarter of the way through their 20th seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And then you consider Castroneves took the pole Friday night in his No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet with a new track record at Phoenix International Raceway at 194.905 mph average speed – again, on a one-mile oval – and Kanaan led the way among the 13 Hondas on the grid in his No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and you need to leave the “retire” word out of the conversation.

One of the great aspects about them both is that while they’ve endured through so much change in IndyCar, the series, their competitiveness, banter and great form is still as evident now as when they were kids being groomed for success in the Indy Lights series, as teammates for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports.

Since 1998, IndyCar’s been through a boatload of different sponsors, drivers, teams, chassis, engine manufacturers, series chiefs, marketing firms, buzzwords, rivals, controversies, question marks and fantastic finishes.

But this pair of Brazilians, friends since before they were teenagers, has been a guarantee to endure.

Castroneves, Kanaan, the Borg-Warner Trophy and Gerould. Photo: IndyCar

Fittingly, then, in a city whose track’s history with North American open-wheel racing dates to the 1960s, the weekend kicked off with an homage to the two Brazilians at the Heard Museum, moderated by veteran broadcaster Gary Gerould.

These two hesitate to use the word “old” even though they are both north of 40 years old – and as Dario Franchitti joked, “no one knows how old Tony really is” – yet continue to kick ass on a weekly basis.

6 Sep 1997: Brazilian drivers Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves confers during the Toyota Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in Monterrey, California. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

Before their CART and IndyCar careers started, only one of them was going to win the 1997 Indy Lights title, both in their second seasons. And although Castroneves – then hyphenated as Castro-Neves – held a three-two win advantage, Kanaan won the championship by just four points.

Not that Castroneves thought it was all fair and square, as he joked going into Thursday night.

“I didn’t win the championship because I didn’t finish where I needed to,” he told NBC Sports. “On the celebration lap, the cool down lap, I saw something stuck on his hula hoop – or roll hoop. I stopped and after that we talked about it, ‘Tony, I meant to ask you a question, you’ve got something stuck?’

“Man, I’m telling you we didn’t have HANS devices at the time. To try to disrupt the whole rhythm and get a caution I think he was going to throw his neck support! His plan didn’t work out – he got stuck. So it was funny!”

Kanaan, who won the championship over him, noted how intense the battle between the two really was because they were unsure what would happen if only one of them made it to IndyCar.

7 Jun 1997: Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves of Brazil in the Lola Buick T97/20 for the Tasman Motorsports Racing Team during the ITT Automotive Detroit Grand Prix at Bell Isle in Detroit, Michigan. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

“Probably the best was the year we were going for the Indy Lights championship in ’97,” Kanaan recalled to NBC Sports during this year’s St. Petersburg weekend.

“That was ‘make it or break it’ for us. We actually got told that year that whoever won the championship was going to get a chance in IndyCar. At the time, in our heads, it was only going to be one of us. And we were going head-to-head. We had the same equipment. I ended up winning, but we both moved up.”

They survived that run in Horne’s team’s base of Columbus, Ohio – as the two of them joked Thursday night, there was not much to do – and then were in a sense lucky to both be able to advance into IndyCar the following year.

“Without Steve, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” Kanaan admitted. “It was a combination of Philip Morris in Brazil and him, But, he was the one who had a good team that picked us. We went to a test and it was ten guys and he hand-picked me and Helio out of those ten guys and gave us the opportunity. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”

Not that Castroneves would be sold short either. He pushed through in that aforementioned test at Firebird Raceway’s East road course – south of Phoenix – with a rib injury. While he exited the car in pain, the determination and pace shown was enough to justify Horne’s faith.

Horne was among many who paid tribute to the two Thursday night in a prerecorded message, and also gave them stick for when they collided on the first lap of an Indy Lights race in Toronto in 1996. Castroneves led Kanaan in a 1-2 in Toronto a year later, which was a welcome payback.

Andretti Green Racing’s fabulous four – Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan – capture the top four spots in the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg April 3. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Others included two of Kanaan’s past teammates in Franchitti and Bryan Herta, part of Andretti Autosport (then Andretti Green’s Racing) fabled four-car lineup in the mid-2000s, and Franchitti’s old teammate and current NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy. “PT” had perhaps the best one-liner of the night when he took the opportunity to ask Castroneves how he was taking care of his 2002 Borg-Warner Trophy, as Tracy always felt as though he and not Castroneves was the rightful winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS – MAY 26: Helio Castroneves pits his Marlboro Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the 86th Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 26, 2002. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The one shock bit of news that came out Thursday night had nothing to do with the on-track product these two drivers have delivered. It came with the off-track product Castroneves uses to keep his hair as magical as it is.

“Bedheaded,” he laughed, which caught most of the room off guard. “It doesn’t take as long as you think to get it ready. People think it takes a long time but it’s quick.”

The two drivers reflected on their careers. Castroneves has spent all but two seasons with Team Penske; that incredible 18-year run, and counting, came after a year apiece with the midfield Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams in the 1990s, where he scored his first career podiums. Sadly, with Tony Bettenhausen Jr. having died in an early 2000 plane crash and Carl Hogan dying a year later, his first two owners have long since been unable to see his career rise. His Penske opportunity also arose from tragedy with Greg Moore’s 1999 fatal accident in Fontana, but having been in the right place at the right time, he seized his chance.

Kanaan, meanwhile, had his heyday at Andretti after five stop-start years with Tasman, McDonald’s Championship Racing (a Forsythe satellite team, where he won his first race in 1999 at Michigan) and Mo Nunn Racing that always saw him showcase a lot of potential, but not consistent results. His post-Andretti career saw his attempt to lift KV Racing Technology to the top of the ascendancy, and did when he and the KVSH Racing effort broke through in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 – a result, as it turned out, which extended the careers of both entities when it was possible mid-2013 could have been the end for both.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: 2013 Indianapolis 500 Champion Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the Hydroxycut KV Racing Technology-SH Racing Chevrolet, hugs the Borg Warner Trophy at the yard of bricks during the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation and Champions Portrait Session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kanaan earned his first Indy 500 victory by winning the 97th running of the race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

A late career renaissance has occurred with Chip Ganassi Racing, Kanaan having been meant to be added in a fourth car for 2014 but shifted to become Franchitti’s replacement in the No. 10 car once injuries forced the champion Scot into retirement.

Castroneves holds the wins, poles and Indianapolis 500 victories edge, but Kanaan’s got two championships – one each in IndyCar and Indy Lights – that remain elusive for Castroneves.

Yes, they haven’t won since 2014 and yes, the questions are always whether they should move on and provide an opportunity for the younger crowd to step up to two of the primo, marquee seats in IndyCar.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan of Brazil pose on the finish line with the Borg-Warner trophy during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

But the younger drivers who have raced against them over the years will likely tell you that if you’ve beaten Castroneves and Kanaan, you’ve beaten two of the best. Doing so at Indy, where both drivers have starred and have a combined four wins, is even more of a successful feather in the cap.

Said Kanaan about his future, “In my mind, I’m still very young. I take care of myself a lot. I think I’m still in the game. I think I still I had a decent season last year, despite not getting a win. So, as long as I feel this way, I’m going to keep going. So, how I feel…I feel great.

“We’re raising the bar, between some guys in IndyCar and some guys in NASCAR, with how much we do nowadays to keep ourselves in shape. So, as long my reflexes and my health allow me to do it and I still have the motivation to stay away from the house…once this starts to weigh over me then it will be time to start thinking about that. But I still have the desire, especially with two young kids at home, I want to be on the road!”

And Castroneves added, “I was talking to someone else regarding our lives. We’re friends. We’re competing for the same job. The same seat. We were in separate parallel series, we were teammates, then we had a rivalry, and we have had all these scenarios together.

“But one thing I feel is awesome, we both work really hard and achieve the goals we’re looking for. And we still get it done!”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500