2009 Long Beach forever changed lives of Helio Castroneves, Will Power

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LONG BEACH, California – The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach will forever remain pivotal in the careers of Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske.

It was at this race 10 years ago that Power’s future with Penske was determined, although the Team 2014 NTT IndyCar Series champion and defending Indianapolis 500 winner had to be reminded of that.

For Castroneves, it’s the 10thAnniversary of one of the most important moments of his life.

It was April 18, 2009 when Castroneves was acquitted of all charges in a tax evasion trial in a United States Federal Court in Miami, Florida.

Instead of being led out of the courthouse in shackles, Castroneves was able to continue his racing career.

Power, who won the Champ Car Series finale in the 2008 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for KV Racing Technology, was out of a ride after the 2008 IndyCar Series season. Less than one month into the offseason, Castroneves was indicted for tax evasion and tax fraud.

If convicted, Castroneves faced a prison sentence and deportation to Brazil.

Team owner Roger Penske stood by the driver, who at that time was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

Castroneves would be unable to compete for Team Penske during the trial and Penske told him that he would get his IndyCar Series ride back if he was cleared of all charges.

Meantime, Penske needed a replacement driver that could drive for the team while Castroneves was having his trial. Power did not have a full-time deal with any team and believed a part-time ride with Team Penske would give him a chance to showcase his skill with one of the top teams in the series.

As the trial began, Power started sixth and finished sixth in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Florida on April 5, 2009. The next race was in Long Beach and as Castroneves’ trial entered its final phases, Team Penske was prepared for any and all outcomes.

The team brought an extra transporter to Long Beach, one that was painted black with no distinguishing sponsor logos. Inside was an extra Team Penske car with the No. 12.

If Castroneves was found guilty, Powers would remain in the No. 3 entry. Once he was acquitted, however, Power would step aside from the No. 3 and give it back to Castroneves.

At that point, Team Penske would bring out the extra car and prepare it as a “one-off” for Power.

It was about 11 a.m. Pacific Time on Friday of the race weekend that word began to circulate around the paddock that Castroneves had been cleared of all charges.

The emotional Castroneves sobbed openly in court, happy to be free to remain in the United States and continue his life as an IndyCar Series driver for Team Penske.

It proved to be a monumental moment in the careers for both drivers.

“Wow – the 10-year anniversary of Helio getting acquitted. That was my big shot,” Power told NBC Sports.com. “I had just finished the Friday practice first in practice and Tim Cindric (Team Penske president) and said to me in the pits, ‘The good news is you are P1. The bad news is Helio is on his way.’

“I was relegated to the back of the pit lane with a whole new crew, whole new car, felt good, went fast in practice on Saturday and won the pole.

“They had another car for me, and I felt like this was a big shot for me at this race.

“To qualify on the pole and finish second confirmed to Roger Penske, ‘Well, we probably should give him another chance.’”

INDYCAR PhotoPower’s No. 12 was sponsored by Verizon, beginning a long sponsorship with the company that continues today. By winning the pole at Long Beach, he outqualified both of his teammates. Castroneves qualified eighth and finished with limited practice time on Saturday and none in the preseason. Ryan Briscoe qualified 10thand finished 13th.

“That definitely solidified my place on this team,” Power said. “I outqualified my teammates. That’s the first thing I needed to do to show Roger I could do at least as well as those guys. Also, he was giving me a chance in the Indianapolis 500 as well. So, I had two races to prove myself.”

Power focused on the job at hand. He finished fifth at the Indianapolis 500 that year. Team Penske added four more races to the schedule in 2009 and Power made the most of those with a third-place finish at Toronto and a dominant victory from the pole at Edmonton. He finished ninth at Kentucky but was involved in a crash in practice at Sonoma Raceway that left him with a broken back.

Power would recover and was rewarded with a full-time ride at Team Penske beginning in 2010.

Since that time, he has become one of the greats of his generation with 32 of his 34 career IndyCar wins coming with Team Penske after the 2009 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He won the 2014 NTT IndyCar Series championship and the 102ndIndianapolis 500 in 2018.

He is second all-time in IndyCar poles with 55. Mario Andretti is the leader in most poles with 67.

“The 2009 season was such a pivotal year for me and so important to execute in every race,” Power said. “It ended with a bit of an issue with me breaking my back, but I would recover and had shown Roger I was able to do the job.”

As for Castroneves, Penske already knew he could do the job. He is the only driver in Indianapolis 500 history to win the race in his first two attempts (2001 and 2002). He was already a big-name star in the series and was gaining fame outside of racing as the champion of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007.

When asked to reflect on the importance of that weekend in 2009, Castroneves smiled.

“Actually, my sister and attorney have called me this week and we are trying to have a reunion of the attorney’s this year at the Indianapolis 500,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com. “It’s not something you want to talk about, but for sure it was a pivotal moment of my life that brought me back to racing and I’m happy to be here.

“It changed perspective of a lot of things and made me realize how much I love racing. With the victory at Indianapolis that same year, it showed that is what I was born to do. Hopefully, I can keep going as much as I can.”

It was five weeks after he was acquitted that Castroneves won his third Indianapolis 500 on May 24, 2009.

Instead of being incarcerated, Castroneves was in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He has experienced the lowest valley in life to the greatest achievement of his career.

And it also played a vital role in the start of a career for Power, who has become one of the best drivers of his era.

“He wouldn’t have become who he is, so talk about destiny,” Castroneves said of Power. “Sometimes, you can’t plan. God has a plan and it worked for me; it’s worked for Will. It has worked the way it should be.”

Ten years ago, Castroneves remembers making that phone call to Penske to tell him he had been cleared. Penske told him to get ready, he was sending his private plane.

“The plane got to Miami about 6 p.m.,” Castroneves recalled. “I don’t even remember packing; I was just wanting to get out of Miami. We all jumped in RP’s (Penske’s) plane. It was surreal.”

The flight landed about 11 a.m. Castroneves could not sleep that night and he couldn’t wait to get to the track and be reunited with his team.

“I didn’t have much rest, but who cares? It was a new day for me,” Castroneves said. “And that’s how Verizon got started with this team. It changed a lot direction for a lot of people, including mine and Will.

“For that, Long Beach will have a special place in my heart.”

Verizon would go on to sponsor the IndyCar Series from 2014-2018. Castroneves has since moved over to IMSA to drive for Acura Team Penske but will return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the IndyCar Grand Prix on May 11 and the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 24.

On Thursday, Power was inducted into the Grand Prix of Long Beach “Walk of Fame” as a two-time winner of this great event. He was given a dozen red roses along with a plaque similar to the one that will be displayed on Pine Avenue with all of the other racing greats.

Power walked up to Castroneves during a luncheon on Thursday and gave Castroneves the roses along with a hug.

Perhaps that was meant as a way to thank Castroneves and Team Penske for the strange and ironic way that day in 2009 meant for his career.

Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’


DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”