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DiZinno: Appreciating Helio, once again, for possibly the last time

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In just a handful of days, Helio Castroneves may well be making his final start as a full-time driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The emotion or magnitude of that moment may not fully hit until the checkered flag falls in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

That the uncertainty of whether this will or will not be Castroneves’ last start has lingered all summer is a shame, as he stands on the precipice of finally winning his elusive first championship after 20 years of trying.

More than the stats – of which Castroneves has wracked up since 1998, and include 30 wins, 50-plus poles and include 13 top-five finishes in 17 years with Team Penske (will be 14 in 18 provided he ends top-five again this year) – is his importance and key moments he’s made for IndyCar, since arriving as a rookie with a hyphenated last name all those years ago.

Like his Brazilian countryman Tony Kanaan, Castroneves has been a rock for the championship through all its various twists and turns, ups and downs, leadership and schedule changes, and car evolution over this period.

If you think of IndyCar as a whole since the late 1990s, you think of turmoil, and regret for a lost opportunity to keep its ascendance from the perceived “glory years” of the mid-1990s going as the divisive split shattered the fan base, the ratings, the participants, the manufacturers, the sponsorship and the overall landscape of the sport.

But if you think of Castroneves in that same time period, you think of a number of magical moments that have permeated to this day.

18 Oct 1998: Helio Castroneves from Team Bettenhausen Motorsports driving the Reynard Mercedes 98I during the CART – Honda Indy Australia in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

After losing out to Kanaan for the 1997 Indy Lights crown, both made it into CART the next season. From his first couple podiums at Milwaukee in 1998 and Gateway in 1999, finishing second for the low-budget Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams, respectively, you knew there was a driver high on life, high on happiness, and high on outright potential.

That his own career could have stalled out if not for the tragic 1999 CART season finale in Fontana would have been a shame in itself. It took the loss of Greg Moore, sadly, to keep Castroneves’ career going as Moore’s replacement.

But from 2000 onwards, he and Team Penske have become as much of a natural partnership as peanut butter and jelly together on a sandwich.

And in many respects, Castroneves has served as that “jelly” to Penske’s “peanut butter.”

Whereas peanut butter isn’t often known for its flavor, it is the bedrock of this kind of sandwich – the staple, the ground level ingredient that provides the starting point for all other additions.

Castroneves, the “jelly,” has been Penske’s effervescent, colorful add-on that you can’t imagine the team without going forward, even though the day he won’t be in a Penske IndyCar full-time for good would always arrive at some point.

16 Jun 2000: Helio Castroneves #3 of Brazil who drives a Honda Reynard 2KI for Marlboro Team Penske is sitting in his car before the race during the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit, part of the FedEx Championship Series at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan.Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

The peanut butter was the Penske perfect pit stops and strategy that positioned Castroneves for his first win in General Motors’ backyard in 2000, on Belle Isle Park in Detroit. The jelly was Castroneves’ spontaneous eruption leaving the car, running for the catch-fencing and launching his “Spider-Man” tradition that continues to this day after each of his 30 career wins.

The peanut butter was Penske returning to its spiritual home of Indianapolis, the track where Mr. Penske wants to win more than anywhere else, in 2001 as the first team back when the split was five years in. The jelly was Castroneves, the more emotional of Penske’s two Brazilians along with Gil de Ferran, being first to break through at the track and win that year’s Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

27 May 2001: Helio Castroneves climbs the fence in celebration after winning the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Digital Image. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT

The ebullient emotion continued in each of Castroneves’ wins the rest of the way, from that controversial win over Paul Tracy in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, all the way towards his most recent win at Iowa this July on the weekend when the news broke after rumors had percolated for months that he was likely destined for a Penske sports car.

And emotion permeates even when he doesn’t win, too. The crying relief he revealed in 2009 when he was cleared of tax evasion charges came through when he made his return to action for Penske at that year’s Long Beach race, and shuffled Will Power to a third car.

That restored order to the galaxy after the strange, weird emotion that it wasn’t Castroneves in Penske’s No. 3 car in St. Petersburg, while it was Power in a one-off fill-in drive.

And then there was that famous angry outburst he had at then-INDYCAR security director Charles Burns at Edmonton in 2010, when he ran towards him and grabbed him after being aggrieved at a call that didn’t go his way.

That eruption was pure Helio. No other driver – save for maybe Kanaan – could have ran after the security director, grabbed him by the chest and tried shaking him, and yet got a reaction like Helio did. Burns laughed, and we got the lasting memory to go along with it.

ST PETERSBURG, FL – MARCH 25: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, drives the #3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske on Dan Wheldon Way in the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg on March 25, 2012 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

There was the emotion of being the right driver to win at the right time. Something felt eerily perfect about Castroneves winning the first race of the Dallara DW12 era in 2012. His stopping at Dan Wheldon Way at Turn 10 on the streets of St. Petersburg to do his fence climb there provided an endearing image that was just the right pick-me-up for a series in need of one after an offseason of turmoil, questions and despair in the wake of Wheldon’s death. That it was Castroneves winning after his own nightmare season in 2011 was excellent timing too, because in 18 years in a Penske IndyCar, that was the only year he never looked a championship contender and provided any ammunition to critics that he couldn’t hack it given the machinery.

There of course, has been the agony of all the lost championships. With four championship runner-ups in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014, Castroneves is your equivalent Dan Marino, Buffalo Bills or Mark Martin of IndyCar. He’ll forever be acknowledged as one of the best, but perhaps known more as the driver who never quite won a title, unless he can change that this weekend. Watching his Houston doubleheader disaster in 2013 was sickening as his sure grasp on that year’s crown slipped away.

Even now, Castroneves has not allowed emotion to get in the way – publicly, anyway – this 2017 campaign. He tipped his cap to Takuma Sato after a job well-done at Indianapolis, as Sato joined Ryan Hunter-Reay as an Andretti Autosport driver cruelly denying Castroneves win number four at the Speedway. It’s incredible to think that with three close runner-up finishes, Castroneves could well have six Indianapolis 500 victories.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, races ahead of Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, on his way toward winning the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

He’s answered all the questions about his future with the professional aplomb and diplomacy you’d expect of a Penske driver, even if his body language has indicated an annoyance the questions even needed to be asked.

And now, he heads to Sonoma having just gone through yet another whirlwind last couple weeks.

At Gateway, he barely kept his head up after making a pit road mistake that cost him a potential win. At Watkins Glen, he bounced back in trademark “happy Helio” style with a fourth place that felt much better, the best Chevrolet on a day when Hondas dominated. And he’s now had to fly west for a Sonoma test while also working to ensure his home in Ft. Lauderdale didn’t get damaged in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

16 March 2001- Helio Castroneves of the Penske Auto Center Special Racing Team talks with Tim Cindric President of Penske Racing after the Friday afternoon practice in preperation for the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200, round one of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series Championship at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT

“I believe I’m experienced enough to be able to separate a lot of things, a lot of rumors, a lot of noise,” Castroneves told reporters in a pre-Sonoma teleconference.

“Let’s put it this way. But Roger, Cindric and I, we have an agreement. I enjoy to be part of this team, and we just want to continue to focus on this last race, which is extremely important for, as I said, not only for myself but most important, as well, having a championship for the team.

“Whatever future happens, I’m ready to go. But at this point, I’m really focused on this season and this last race of the season. We are looking forward to whatever happens in the future, and I’ll be happy.”

Tim Cindric said of Castroneves’ professionalism, “I think he’s always been a professional. He’s a guy that there’s a reason why he’s got the longest tenure with our organization and with Roger. He defines team player really at the end of the day. He’s been through some good times and some bad times. We’ve supported him. He’s supported us, vice versa. Me personally, I’ve been through a lot with him. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with.

“When you look at it, it’s always amazing, we always tell him, you know, in a lot of ways he’s still a 14-year-old kid. As he continues to grow a year older at a time, he still has the pace. He’s one of those guys that I think he gives hope to all the other drivers around him that, you know, you can still be competitive and still be there when you get into your 40s.

“Yeah, he’s always been a pleasure to work with. He wears it on his sleeves some days. But I know how focused he is on being that close to the championship. He’s been there many times. When you look at the history of how many times he’s gone into the final race with the opportunity to win a championship, he’s there again this year. It would be a no better story than Helio winning the championship this year.”

Castroneves is 22 points back of teammate Josef Newgarden in third place for this weekend’s race.

The potential exists that he finally will break through and win that first title.

The sadness is that if this is Castroneves’ last drive as a full-time IndyCar driver, he won’t have had the season-long appreciation tour to have been celebrated for what he has given to this championship.

Is there one more lasting, potentially defining memory of Castroneves, in a Penske IndyCar to come?

If there is, it will only add to his notebook of brilliance left over the last 20 years… and potentially make the decision that much harder for his bosses whether to end his IndyCar story here.

DETROIT, MI – JUNE 01: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet winning the Verizon IndyCar Chevrolet Indy Dual II at The Raceway on Belle Isle on June 1, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500