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.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500