When his racing career reached a crossroads with Team Penske two years ago, Helio Castroneves solicited advice from someone who had stood at the same juncture.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner asked a four-time winner of the Indy 500 who also has spent nearly his entire racing life with car owner Roger Penske.
Castroneves, who had options to drive for other race teams, said it was a “pivotal point” in deciding to remain with Penske but move into the IMSA sports car series last year after a 20-season career in IndyCar.
“I sat down with Rick Mears and asked him, ‘What would you do?’ ” Castroneves said on the latest edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “He said, ‘It’s difficult for me because I’ve made my decision. But I can see you still have the fire in the guts and still want to do it.’
“He mentioned something I’ll share with everyone today. ‘He said RP is an incredible human being. At the end of day, stick with him. I guarantee it’ll be the best for you.’ ”
The 30-time winner in IndyCar, including the 2001, ’02 and ’09 Indy 500s, said he had options to leave after driving full time for Penske from 2000-17. The talks with other teams came close to yielding official offers, which Castroneves had planned “to bring to Roger and say, ‘This is what we’ve got. You’re a businessperson. Guide me.’”
But his talk with Mears, who tied a record for Indy 500 wins while racing at Penske from 1978-92, helped assuage any doubts Castroneves had about departing Penske.
“I start playing a little movie in my head,” Castroneves said about hearing Mears’ suggestion. “In 2000-01 when we moved from CART to the IRL, I kept with Team Penske. When I had my case with the tax scenario in 2008, (Penske) stayed and backed up me up. So you start making any these scenarios. I’m like, ‘You know what, Rick is right.’ That’s what I should do.
“I’m extremely happy and hopefully I can accomplish another goal with him which is the Daytona 24.”
Teamed with Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi in the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype International, Castroneves will be making his second Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona start after finishing ninth overall with Taylor and Graham Rahal last year (coverage of the race will begin Saturday on NBCSN at 2 p.m.).
Castroneves will share the ride with Taylor, a veteran American of sports car racing, for the 2019 season in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The pair won last year at Mid-Oho Sports Car Course in Castroneves’ rookie season.
“Ricky Taylor is a phenomenal kid with more (sports car) experience than myself,” Castroneves said. “It’s fun. I missed this. I want to keep going as far as I can. It’s definitely a new challenge. New tracks. New cars. It’s starting all over again. It’s great. I’m just so blessed I’m still racing.”
Though he is adjusting to a new cockpit with a lower steering wheel, Castroneves has found the cars to be less demanding on his neck. That in part is why the effervescent Brazilian, who will turn 44 in May, believes he can follow the path of Scott Pruett and race into his 50s.
“I’m just starting, man,” Castroneves said on the podcast. “No question, I hope I can drive just like Pruett did. I see a lot of drivers way older than me who still are driving very well. That would be my goal.”
But he also is keeping a hand in IndyCar. For the second consecutive season, he will return in an Indianapolis 500 one-off with Penske and also might run the Indianapolis Grand Prix as a warmup.
“Oh I do still miss it,” Castroneves said of IndyCar. “Twenty years! It’s like that ex-girlfriend, I still need to tell her, ‘Honey, come on. Let’s do one more time.’
“It’s hard to give up 20 years and wipe it out from your memory. The good news is the transition has been phenomenal because now I’m still racing at a point in my career that I feel I can still be very competitive.
And this is able to calm those urges of, ‘I should do it.’
“Definitely IMSA has been able to fulfill that. And I’m glad! Because otherwise I’d be depressed, smoking, drinking and be miserable.”
In the podcast, Castroneves also discusses:
–His joy of racing against Alex Zanardi again in this year’s Rolex 24;
–His thoughts on the renaissance IndyCar is experiencing;
–How he witnessed the evolution of safety in racing. Castroneves ran his first race in 1998 after a practice crash that he was “99% sure” caused a concussion.
“Back then I just remember my head hurt so bad, but I said I’ve got to be able to race my first race,” he said. “Even that evolution of the cars and safety of tracks, it’s still a very dangerous sport. I’m very fortunate to have big crashes and get out of there without serious injury. Those things you’ve got to feel blessed to do something you love and know the risk and still able to come back home and see your family.”
–Whether he still keeps up with Dancing With The Stars contestants 10 years after winning the event;