Helio Castroneves’ SRX dirt experience improved his driving skills

SRX Castroneves
Dylan Buell / Getty Images

At 46, Castroneves is still looking to improve as a driver and his recent dirt track experience in the Camping World SRX Series at Eldora Speedway adds to that skillset. Slightly less than one month after winning his fourth Indy 500 and five months after scoring the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona win, Castroneves was just as enthusiastic about his first podium finish in three SRX races.

One reason this podium felt so good was that he came close in the two previous series races with fourth-place finishes at Stafford (Conn.) Speedway and Knoxville (Iowa) Speedway.

“If you would have told me one day I would be racing on dirt, I would have said ‘no way’,” Castroneves said during media availability prior to this week’s race at Lucas Oil Raceway this Saturday, July 3. “And all the sudden I’m racing there and got my first podium in the SRX at Eldora, which is really amazing.”

Finishing third, Castroneves not only scored his first podium, he was in the hunt for the win as multiple cautions waved in the closing laps of the race. Equally important, he solidified his second-place position in the standings halfway through the season, trailing Tony Stewart by 33 points.

To hear him talk, one would not know that this is a specialty series designed to pit older superstars against up-and-comers in identically prepared cars reminiscent of the IROC series.

Castroneves competed in IROC four seasons from 2002 through 2005 and scored three top-fives. His best points’ finish was fourth in his rookie season. So he knows something about racing in these shortened series, and he’s hungry to win. Despite a constant smile on his face that infects everyone who sees it, Castroneves takes racing in SRX seriously and is taking the time to learn how to excel.

Castroneves got a lot of help before climbing into the car to race in Heat 1 – a race he led twice and finished second – by asking questions of everyone around him.

One of the recipients of his queries was Keith Kunz, the Local All-Star Crew Chief for Eldora’s race. He is also the owner of Keith Kunz Motorsports, which fields midgets in the USAC and Powri series. And as the crew chief with the most experience on dirt for the Eldora SRX race, Castroneves could not have asked for a better coach.

“Helio got one (dirt) race under his belt before I came,” Kunz told NBC Sports. “He instantly was pretty good and he was really wanting to learn. When you have a series like the SRX, a lot of them are there to enjoy themselves and some of them are there to race hard. Helio really wanted to excel on the dirt because it was something he had never done.

“He was very enthusiastic. Asked a lot of questions. Everything we threw at him, he listened and went out and did. On practice night, he took everything we suggested and went out and kept going faster and faster, where by the end of the night he was turning the fastest laps of the day.”

Castroneves’ introduction to dirt came one week previous at Knoxville. There was a learning curve as he finished ninth and seventh of 12 drivers in his two heats, but once he got to the feature, he was comfortable.

Then it was on to Eldora, which Castroneves believed was the more challenging track of the two.

“My specialty is, my team runs a lot of dirt and I’ve raced a lot at Eldora and that is where I was really able to help Helio,” Kunz said. “Where he needed to be and how he needed to enter the corner to get speed – how where he entered the track changed the feel of the car – and he absorbed all that to his benefit.”

Castroneves has 25 IndyCar wins to his credit. He’s stood on the stop step of the podium more than a half-dozen times in sports cars, but when he gets his first SRX win one senses it will be just as meaningful because it further adds to an impressive resume and a more impressive skill set.

Becoming a better driver, even at the age of 46, is what is driving Castroneves to success.

“Following the direction of (guys like Kunz) because they’ve been there in different series, raced many times, for me just having a coach and going to a place I’ve never been and never experienced. Basically listening to everyone. The good news about our series is we all respect each other, We all help each other. You see everyone giving pointers and what to do. I was just following a lot of directions and at the end of the day you start understanding, seeing a little bit where the grip is.

“Running on dirt definitely improved my skills in racing.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)