DiZinno: The ‘Great Corn Helio’: Iowa win proves Castroneves still has it

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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.”

Timekeepers: What winning a watch at Daytona means to a driver

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some gift them to family and friends. Some keep them for their children. Some put them in safekeeping.

Others wear them as a daily reminder of perhaps their greatest accomplishment in auto racing.

It’s the steel and yellow gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona (with a white dial) that has become synonymous with victory in the 24-hour race that opens the IMSA season.

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“Daytona is about one thing and one thing only: It’s just the watch,” said Bryan Sellers, the 2018 GTD Series champion who still is seeking his first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory after 13 starts. “You grow up in sports car racing knowing that is the one trophy you have to win before you walk away. You want to wear that watch to Daytona the next year, so that everyone knows you won it, or you want to wear it to the year-end banquet so people know you have won one.

Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon with their watches after their 2015 Rolex 24 win (Jerry Markland/Getty Images).

“That is a race that when you win it, your name is forever etched in history. There is something special about it. Everybody wants the watch. That’s all that matters.”

Since 1992, every driver on a class-winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and the race’s grand marshal) has received the watch, whose retail price starts at more than $10,000. Last year, there were 16 watches awarded to the winners at Daytona International Speedway.

Every winner has a story of what the watch means, and every driver still trying to win their first has a story of what they’d do with it.

Here’s a sampling of what the watch means to those racing in the 58th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


A.J. Allmendinger (2012 Daytona Prototype overall winner): “Yeah, I always bring it with me to the Rolex as a good luck charm to show me like, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten one before, we can still go do this again.’ For the most part, I don’t wear it, I keep it in a drawer that I know where it is at all times. If I’m feeling a little down on myself about my driving at times, I may have put it back on just to show like ‘Hey, you can get it one when it’s time,’ but I don’t wear it a lot, I wear it on special occasions and always bring it out just to show that you know it’s inspiration. I’d like another one for my other arm. Technically, I have to get another one for my dad because I promised him the first one and once I won it I was like, ‘No, sorry Dad, this one’s mine,’ but it’s there. It’ll always be in a drawer for sure.”

Townsend Bell (2014 GTD): “We lost the race in 2014 on a penalty, and the penalty was reversed two hours after the race. So we won the race and I won a watch. And then four years later, my watch was stolen when my house was burglarized. So just for one watch and one win, I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions just to this point, and I really look at it like I’m level set back to nothing, and I’ve got to go earn and win one again and having lost one through theft it makes me just as hungry as ever to go make it happen. … When I first won the watch, I brought it home to California, and I remember showing it to my oldest son Jackson at the time, and it’s one of the few things I’ve done in racing where he’s looked at something or held something, and I can tell he was proud and thought it was pretty cool. As a dad, that’s a great feeling.”

Andy Lally (2001Rolex SRPII, 2009-2011-2012 Rolex GT, 2016 GTD): “I actually have eight because I got three championships and back then they used to give you one for the championship. The first one is here and the other seven are gifted to people that have helped me out through the years. I gave my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my little sister, Mike Johnson, who was the car owner and the guy that put me in my first Daytona that helped me win the first one. My old soccer coach and the first guy to sponsor me in a car. He pulled me out of go karts and put me in my first race car. Those people have my other seven watches. I want to win more to give back. I love that moment because I give it to people who appreciate what this race is about and appreciate the Rolex brand and appreciate what that means, what that signifies, what that Rolex Daytona is and it’s special to me and I know it’s special to them.”

Joao Barbosa (2010 Daytona Prototype overall, 2014 Prototype overall, 2018 Prototype overall): “I’m planning to donate a couple of them when my kids grow up and probably when they have their own kids so it goes by generations. I have two kids so someday they will have their own kids, and it might be a good gift to give them when they get to that point.”

Renger van der Zande (2019 DPI overall): “I have a son, he’s 1 year and 2 months. So, if he behaves for 18 years and he’s responsible, he might get a Rolex from me. So I’ll keep it safe for then.”

Jeff Gordon, Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli, and Jordan Taylor, show off their Rolex watches in victory lane after winning the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2017 (Brian Cleary/Getty Images).

Ricky Taylor (2017 Prototype overall): “So when I won the Rolex in 2017, I never took it out of the box. I would leave it in the box and I would eat breakfast with it every day, I’d look at it, and it didn’t seem real. So I’d look at it and it would be there, we’d eat breakfast together, and then I’d put it away. That went on for about two, three weeks, and then my dad told me that we had a sponsor dinner, and everyone was wearing their watches, so I had to wear it. So, besides that one time that I wore it to the sponsor dinner, it’s never come out of the box. It hides in my office, and I want it just to stay exactly how it was the day that we won.”

Oliver Gavin (2016 GTLM): “My Rolex is now at home in a safe. I’ve gotten it out of the box once and showed my family. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to put this away for safekeeping. It’s now still there, in the safe. I’ve got relics from the Sebring 12 Hours in 2013. I want one more, then I’ve got one for all my children. That’s my goal.”

Ryan Briscoe (2015 GTLM, 2018 GTLM): “The first one was absolutely mine and I don’t wear a watch much, I’ve got a beautiful watch box at home. My dad gave me this rotating watch box so it keeps it going and so forth. My second one, I wanted to give to my wife. I had it sized for her. It’s a gold one with a white face and really looks good. So on special occasions, we will put our Daytonas on and go out.”

Sebastien Bourdais, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa celebrate with their watches after the 2014 Rolex 24 (courtesy of IMSA).

Patrick Pilet (2014 GTLM): “My wife she told me if I win a second one, she wants to get it so now I have a lot of pressure. I’m always proud to wear the watch and to show what is on the back of the watch with the Rolex winner is something really unique.”

Nick Tandy (2014 GTLM): “The watch is a trophy you can’t buy. You have to win it. It’s obviously symbolic of the race. A bit like the trophies at Le Mans. You can only get these particular trophies at Le Mans. So, if in years to come in time you can look back and show your grandchildren this particular trophy that happens to be a Rolex, and you can say you had to win this, no one can go out there and buy these sort of things- it’s something you have to work for.”

Kamui Kobayashi (2019 DPI overall): “I would not mind having a second one (laughs). This is why you always want to win these big races. The challenge of this big race, everyone wants this big watch. The watch is a special present. Everyone says it looks cool, but when you turn it around and it says Daytona winner, that is something even more special. To look at that, it is just crazy.”

Colin Braun (2014 Prototype challenge winner): “I have two of them. They’re both in my safe at home. I won them, and I just felt like, ‘Man, these are so special to me.’ I want to be able to take them out, look at them and put them back in my safe. I feel like if I wore them, I’d worry about scratching them, losing them. They’re just so special. When I won a second one, I would wear that watch because it would kind of be an everyday watch. I sort of fell back on that and said, ‘Man, this is special, too. I’m putting this in the safe.’ I don’t want anything to happen to it so if we can win a third here I’ll say that I’ll wear it, and hopefully, I really do.”

Simon Pagenaud (2019 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in five Rolex 24 starts): “Racing is also about the trophies and the jewelry that you get. I think it’s ends up being what you’ve done in your career and when you look at your rings and your watches and your trophies that you’ve won throughout the years, you remember racing moments, passing, actions at the race track, drama and you’ve got all these memories going through your mind. To me, it’s everything. It’s what my life is — its racing–  so obviously if I could get the watch that would be a very special gift.”

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in two Rolex 24 starts): “I have (an Indy 500 ring), a watch would be great. I don’t know if there’s a race that gives out a necklace if you win but if there is, that would probably be the next on my list.”

Helio Castroneves (three-time Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in four Rolex 24 starts): “I think the jewelry combination would be perfect. Ring (from the Indy 500) and watch together. It would just complete one of the goals that I want. You’re talking about Daytona 24 Hours, and the Rolex would be an incredible asset to have right here (points at wrist).”

Courtesy of IMSA