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Helio, TK, head down new paths of racing in different series

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The two kids from Brazil who barely spoke a word of English when they arrived in North America in 1995, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, have raced alongside each other in the same series for 22 straight years.

After two years in Indy Lights as teammates, they were both part of the full-time Verizon IndyCar Series fabric for the last 20 from 1998 through 2017, and were celebrated for that earlier this year.

Yet for the first time since arriving on these shores, in 2018, there won’t be the “Helio and TK” dynamic as both of their new ventures have been officially confirmed last week.

HELIO’S NEW PATH

For Castroneves, his continuation with Team Penske now shifts to sports cars. Despite his incredible resume in IndyCar – easily the best driver of his generation to have not won a championship – he’ll take up residence in an Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) full-time next season.

The first “Penske and Castroneves as full-time sports car participants” weekend is complete, with Motul Petit Le Mans in the books.

Castroneves was immediately on pace. He scored the pole position, had the measure of teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud all weekend, and helped lead a rebound to a podium finish in the team’s first race.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Castroneves, Team Penske president Tim Cindric and Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr were present Friday to look ahead to what’s to come.

“Being part of Team Penske obviously is an amazing opportunity to join this,” Castroneves said. “When Cindric and Roger talked to me about it a while ago, we waited for the manufacturer to officially happen, and it happened. For me it’s a great opportunity to continue driving for as long as I want, and continue pushing to the limit.

“I really want to find the best out about our team. It’s great. I’m looking forward to learning a lot. Run with a lot of traffic. Along the way I’ll make some new friends… and I’ll make some enemies too. That’s not the goal! But the goal is understand as smooth as possible the strategy and way of racing. It might be a bit different. There’s a learning process to that, and I’m up for the challenge.”

Castroneves and Cindric were playfully bantering during their press conference as the two joked about how hilarious their driver changes were looking in practice.

“It should be a reality show, with bloopers,” Cindric deadpanned.

But after a wealth of preparation, including a 6:30 a.m. wakeup call on race day, they were all good to go as Castroneves, Montoya and Pagenaud cycled through their four changes well. Castroneves started before turning over to Montoya, with Pagenaud third in, and then back to the other two for the rest of the race.

At race’s end, with the team having overcome Castroneves getting hit in the first hour and losing a lap, then also having the car briefly shut off, he reflected on his first race back as a full-time sports car driver, and thanked IMSA for the welcome.

“It was impressive. I never stay ‘behind the scenes,’ This is the first time watching Tim Cindric, Jonathan Diuguid doing strategy,” Castroneves said. “I knew before, but now I was seeing it from the stand. Myself, Juan Pablo and Simon worked well together. It was a great learning curve and it’ll create a great foundation for 2018.

“It’s been such a warm welcome. It reminds me of when we went Champ Car to IRL. I’m sure we will have ups and downs. I’m so happy IMSA is receiving us with open arms, not only myself but also Team Penske.”

TK KEEPS GOING IN INDYCAR, NOW WITH FOYT

Photo: A.J. Foyt Enterprises

Kanaan, meanwhile, will continue in IndyCar for the full season for the next chapter of his career, with Castroneves only joining in at the two month of May races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a fourth Team Penske entry.

The two will have their first opportunity to see each other at the same race weekend at Long Beach next April, Kanaan in the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet in IndyCar with Castroneves in one of the two Acura Team Penske ARX-05s.

Kanaan focused primarily on his own announcement with Foyt last week, but did take the time to reflect on the end of an era with Castroneves being in the same paddock.

“Well, he’s definitely going to be missed. I think he was a big name in IndyCar, like I am,” Kanaan said. “We started together back in ’98, so obviously he chose to pursue another career as far as racing, go to another series, so I wish him the best, and obviously I think, like I said, he will be missed.”

Since both drivers have been active for 20 years in IndyCar, Kanaan spoke to the success both have achieved throughout that time that have kept them there.

“Yeah, I guess the only good people are the only ones that last, and I guess I’m the last man standing, so I’m pretty proud of my career,” he said. “Of course if I would go back 20 years ago and would have said that I was going to be here for this long, I don’t think I could predict that, but obviously year in, year out, people keep saying, the old guys here and there, but we keep delivering, so I think it doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re winning races, I don’t think people care. All we care is about winning. I still think I can win, and I’m glad that I’m still around so we can keep the tradition of the old timers, that we can still do it. We’ll be here to represent.”

Might Kanaan, who got to race at both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 24 Hours of Le Mans this year in a Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, be open to returning to the sports car endurance race scene? If he does, it could mean they’ll be back on the same grid but with different machinery.

“Yeah, I think I would say — obviously we just signed a multiyear deal here, so I’m not really thinking about it, but obviously there is no secret that I would love to do the endurance races. A.J. won all of them, so I’ve got to catch up with him!

“I have (won) Daytona — I have the 24 hours but I don’t have a Le Mans, so I’ve got to try to do that. If it doesn’t conflict with our program in IndyCar and it doesn’t hurt the program, I would love to do it, and in the future obviously that would be something that I’m interested, but right now, it’s definitely not going to be something that is going to be going through my head to do full-time.”

IndyCar 2018 will be weird without both of them on the same grid, but with their new chapters now officially underway in the last week, their stories of starring in North American racing will continue.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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