Ryan: All hail Helio Castroneves, trophy hunter extraordinaire in motorsports


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – So what highly coveted auto racing trophy is ahead for Helio Castroneves, the reigning big game hunter of motorsports who keeps ticking off the world’s greatest races?

The past 364 days now have included the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Indy 500 and the Rolex 24 at Daytona — again (on Sunday with another extraordinary finishing kick that was nearly the equal of his calculated closing flourish at Indy last year).

And the next marquee target?

The natural answer – and one Castroneves mentioned multiple times postrace Sunday at Daytona – is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he already seems ticketed for an inaugural appearance in his late 40s (and a shot to join 2019 Rolex 24 winner and two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso in winning two of the world’s biggest endurance races).

But let’s get creative!

A Helio v. Max duel at Monaco seems enticing. The dunes of Dakar could use a little of his “Brazilian magic” (as teammate Simon Pagenaud calls it). Maybe John Force needs to face off at the U.S. Nationals with the only driver who could match his boundless verve.

Or wait … what about Daytona International Speedway again — but the 2.5-mile oval instead of the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course?

The World Center of Racing does have that little 500-mile stock-car race coming up next month. Four Borgs-Warners, two engraved Rolexes … a Harley J. Earl trophy would be the perfect way to complete a triple crown of American racing treasures.

Unsurprisingly, the thought of parachuting into the Daytona 500 already has occurred to Castroneves, whose eyes lit up at the semi-serious suggestion of making his NASCAR Cup Series debut along with the Next Gen car in the Great American Race.

“I would love to,” said Castroneves, who revealed he already had laid the groundwork last summer while racing the Superstar Racing Experience run by two NASCAR Hall of Famers (and which apparently will welcome him back this year). “I spoke with (Ray) Evernham and Tony Stewart, said, ‘Hey, find me a car and I’ll jump in! I’m sure a lot of people would like to see me.’ Who knows what’s going to happen? And they talked about it but nothing. Didn’t get traction.

“But I love to race. This is me. It’s been my entire life. And I admire respect. I know it’s not easy. I understand everyone has your specialty. And that’s why, when I moved to IMSA, I believed I started getting better because you start exploring more of your racecraft. And today the big win was because of that. I knew my competitors. I knew what I needed to do, and I did.”

Sunday at Daytona – where Castroneves was chosen as the closer over his three ace sports car teammates for the final hour in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Acura — was further confirmation that the superstar who made his nut in IndyCar has a skillset that somehow keeps getting bigger with age.

“And he’s also only getting better,” Pagenaud said.

Castroneves will turn 47 on May 10, and three weeks later, he will make his 23rd start at the Brickyard as perhaps the prohibitive favorite to win a record fifth Indy 500.

By this time next year, he could be getting ready for a maiden voyage to Le Mans, which will be open to IMSA’s top division (with the new LMDh cars) for the first time in more than 30 years.

During Sunday’s winner’s news conference, Castroneves and Pagenaud openly were lobbying team co-owner Mike Shank (whose team fielded an LMP2 at Le Mans in 2016).

To win his second consecutive Rolex 24 at Daytona, Helio Castroneves held off Wayne Taylor Racing, the team he won with last year (IMSA).

“Mike, let’s go to Le Mans,” Castroneves said, interrupting a moderator listing his recent accomplishments at Indy and Daytona. “Let’s go!”

“I speak French,” Pagenaud deadpanned, later offering that he has a house not far from the most famous endurance race in the world. “I can show you places.”

His effervescent Brazilian teammate won’t pass on the opportunity to put on a show in France, noting a previous Le Mans ride fell through because of a scheduling conflict three years ago. Shank said a decision on returning to France as early as 2023 lies with Honda but “when they’re ready to go, we’re going.”

“I would love to try obviously,” Castroneves said. “Gotta go to those big events.

“We were just talking about age is (not) a problem. I think I’m not running out of time. I’m just getting more experience. And experience in this type of race is the key to be successful.”

There also is a simple secret to the success of a former “Dancing With The Stars” winner who celebrates every victory by scurrying up whatever chain-link catch fence he can find (with his team members in tow like Sunday in an emotional scene eerily similar to IMS last year).

“Passion,” he said. “Passion. When you love what you do and you enjoy it and you have fun and you are surrounded by great people, it makes it happen. That’s the secret.”

His infectious personality also builds trust with co-drivers Pagenaud, Oliver Jarvis and Tom Blomqvist, who happily celebrated at the finish line after joining the fence climb. Castroneves interrupted his postrace run of show multiple times to call his teammates over to share in the joy.

“Woo, woo,” Castroneves exclaimed as they posed for a team photo on the banking. “P1! P1! We’re the king of the world!”

He drove flawlessly over the final hour after being handed the keys on Lap 728, navigating traffic under intense pressure from former teammate Ricky Taylor. Victory wasn’t assured until the final lap when Castroneves narrowly missed a dustup between two GTD Pro cars sliding through the Le Mans Chicane while battling for the class lead.

“I felt a lot of things, like changing my underwear was one of them,” Castroneves said. “Code Brown was another one. I was like all over the place. And thank God that car just kept skidding and did not stop right away. I did not expect a big crash like that right in front. So thank God, it was a little bit of anticipation and luck at the same time. And thank God I had a little bit of a gap between me and Ricky so that I could plan that.

“But it was very scary. I don’t think any other moment of the race (was) that kind of scary.”

It affirmed the decision by Blomqvist, who gave over the wheel despite the team offering the option to stay in until the checkered flag.

“Obviously it would have been fantastic to finish the race, but I’ve been in the car quite a while, and I was pretty cooked at that point,” Blomqvist, 28, said. “But Helio had been super strong all race. So it wasn’t like we were going to give anything away there. Helio did a fantastic job. And it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

“And I think ultimately it teed up Helio only had one job, and it was to not to mess it up. So, I mean, he did a great job. He’s 60 years old and he’s super fast.”

Kidding aside, the blinding speed is matched by a dogged persistence that’s been the bedrock of his late-career renaissance.

When he lost his full-time IndyCar ride with Team Penske in 2017, Castroneves kept a positive attitude while sliding over to Penske’s new Acura team for the next three seasons in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship (while continuing to run the Indy 500 as a one-off).

When Penske shuttered its program after he and Ricky Taylor won the IMSA DPi championship in 2020, Castroneves happily proclaimed he was “open for business.”

Facing what many would have perceived as the end of the line after more than 20 years with car owner Roger Penske, he treated it as a second chance to market his talents with the enthusiasm of a hot young 20something.

Castroneves found the perfect fit with team co-owners Jim Meyer and Michael Shank in a part-time NTT IndyCar Series schedule (which will expand full time this year as Pagenaud’s teammate).

Rolex 24 at Daytona
Helio Castroneves led the Meyer Shank Racing team up the frontstretch fence at Daytona International Speedway after the Rolex 24 at Daytona victory (James Gilbert/Getty Images).

“He’s got everything covered in every spectrum of driving, from the business side to the driving side, to the saving fuel, to the performance,” Shank said. “And a lot of people talk about his age. But I kind of see through that.”

It’s easier when Castroneves constantly is begging to drive as much as possible. Next month, he plans to race in Texas and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring for Meyer Shank Racing, making a Texas to Florida commute on consecutive days that many IndyCar drivers are skipping.

“Helio just makes me smile,” Shank said. “This guy wins the Indy 500 for us. He gets in the (Acura), and he’s like ‘Put me in! Put me in! I’m ready!’ It’s just an amazing story, and we love him.”

Castroneves likes comparing his career arc with Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady.

“It was a rumor he was going to retire,” Castroneves said, referencing the recent reports about Brady’s future with one of many laughs in his postrace interview. “No, he can’t retire! No, he’s my mojo!”

But even if Brady is gone from the NFL gridiron for good, auto racing seems to have its own active legend who might be competitive well into his 50s.

An international celebration at Daytona as a Frenchman, two Brits and a Brazilian walked into victcory lane (IMSA).

“When you have passion, when you study, you have a team behind you to support and teammates, racing is a very competitive sport,” Castroneves said. “You’ve just got to keep doing your homework. I’ve been disciplined, and the results will show up. No question.”

How much racing does he have left?

“A lot,” he said. “The fire’s still burning. One of the quotes that Rick Mears told me a long time ago: If you don’t have the fire, if you stop thinking about it, then it’s time for you to stop.

“I can’t live without it right now. I love this environment. It’s my confidence zone, my therapy, everything. It’s where I feel most comfortable.

“Right now, whatever is next, I’m going to keep it going.”

In tears after the Indianapolis 500, Santino Ferrucci is proud of his third-place finish


INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci was in tears after last Sunday’s 107th Indy 500.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver from Woodbury, Connecticut had just driven the best race of his career, only to have the final yellow flag of the race fly just a second or two before he would have been in position for the win.

The field had just been given the green flag with four laps to go and Ferrucci was charging in the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 1, about to pass both Josef Newgarden for second place, which would have put him in prime position to draft past Marcus Ericsson for the victory.

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIES: Newgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

But IndyCar race control issued the third red flag stoppage in the final 15 laps of the race and with Ferrucci 2 inches behind Newgarden’s Chevrolet, he was lined up third.

When IndyCar had the remaining drivers refire the engines for three-quarters of a lap behind the Pace Car followed by a one-lap green and white flag dash to the finish, Ferrucci knew there was little he could do to get past the front two cars.

Newgarden passed Ericsson on the backstretch and went on to take the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Ericsson was just 0.0974-of-a-second away from winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row and Ferrucci was 0.5273-of-a-second away from winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series race.

It was a fantastic effort for Ferrucci, but to come so close to winning the biggest race in the world, the kid from Connecticut was heartbroken.

“We were so good this month,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports after climbing out of his car. “When you are that fast all month long, you just want it that much more. The way we did everything to finish the race under green, it’s great for the fans, IndyCar did the right thing, but sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow restarting third like that when you are really second.

“It’s all timing and scoring. That doesn’t lie. If it says we are third, we are third. It’s very bittersweet.”

When Ericsson and Newgarden were both “Unleashing the Dragon” with the draft-breaking zigzag moves at the end of the race, Ferrucci admitted he was hoping it would play into his favor if those two made contact ahead of him.

“I was hoping and praying because when you are third, that’s all you can do – hope and pray,” Ferrucci said.

His prayers were not answered, but his determination to win the Indianapolis 500 remains undeterred.

He has never finished outside of the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci was seventh as a rookie in 2019, fourth in 2020, sixth in 2021, 10th last year and third this past Sunday.

“I love this place,” the driver said. “I love coming here. I’m always so comfortable in the race. We are good at avoiding all of the accidents that happened in front of us.

“We will win it eventually. We have to.”

Ferrucci has proven he likes to rise to the big moments.

“I like the pressure,” he said. “We do well under pressure.

“But you have to take third, sometimes.

“We had a really good shot at winning this race. We made the most of it.”

Ferrucci continues to display the uncanny knack for racing hard and avoiding trouble. When he took the lead in the No. 14 car made famous by his team owner, legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt, many of the fans in the crowd of 330,000 roared with approval.

Ferrucci was in front for 11 laps and was in prime position to pounce at the end, before the final 15 laps brought out red flag fever.

Because of that, and the timing of where he was when the last yellow light came on before the final red, put him in a difficult position to win the race.

“It’s just emotional, bittersweet,” he said. “It was emotional getting in the car, which was kind of strange because you feel like there’s a lot of people that really want this, the team really wants this.

“We worked so hard to be where we were. We ran out front all day long. It’s definitely one of the more difficult races that I’ve probably ever run, and just we also knew that we had a really good car.

“We got really close with Felix Rosenqvist when he was wrecking so very thankful, we were able to avoid that. And then yeah, coming to the end, I think on the second to final restart, me and Marcus battling it into 1, and obviously it going red when it did, it’s part of this place, it’s part of racing, it’s part of the Speedway.

“I’m just bummed. I’m sure Marcus Ericsson thinks the same thing I do.

“All three of us could have won it at any point in time.

“Yeah, it’s bittersweet.”

A few days have passed since Ferrucci was crying when he got out of the race car. He celebrated his birthday on Wednesday by mowing his lawn after a 12-hour drive back to his home in Texas. On Thursday morning, he flies to Detroit to get ready for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It has given him a chance to reflect on the biggest weekend of his career.

“Everybody saw on national television I was basically crying,” Ferrucci said. “It’s just one of those competitor things in you that there was so much riding on that race, and it was going so well up until that — it finished really well.

“It wasn’t just pressure to perform but emotional pressure to just be there and to know that we probably had that race won, had it gone yellow two seconds later, it’s just kind of heartbreaking. But still, at the end of the day, you come home in third, to join Helio Castroneves and one other driver, (Harry Hartz, who finished second, second, fourth, fourth and second from 1922-1926), in five of your first five starts in top 10s. And, then you really start to look at what you’ve accomplished at the 500 in your first five starts with four different teams and what you did with A.J. Foyt — what we’ve done at AJ Foyt Racing, who hasn’t had a podium or top 3 since the year 2000 at the Speedway.

“There are so many positives, and that day could have been so much worse. We had so many close calls between pit lane and some of the crashes on track that at the end of the day I was just really, really happy.

“I went to bed that night knowing that I did the best I could, the team did the best they could, and that’s the track.”

Ferrucci stressed that he didn’t have a problem with IndyCar race control doing everything in their power to make sure the race finished the distance under green.

“The way that IndyCar finished under green was 100 percent correct for the fans,” Ferrucci said. “It didn’t affect anything for me. What affected me wasn’t the red, it was the yellow.

“The second it went yellow, had it gone yellow two seconds later had they waited, which you can’t wait when you’re crashing, so there’s nothing you can do, I was in third, I was about 6 inches behind Newgarden, and that’s very clear in the video.

“At the end of the day, nothing changed for me. The fact that they actually went red and restarted the race gave me that opportunity to win again. I just didn’t have a great restart because it’s chaotic when you just go. You’ve got to also remember there’s no restart zone.

“At that point when you’re going green for one lap, it was really cool to see the shootout, I’m not going to lie, but you know that they’re going green, so you were literally at the hands of the leader on a completely random — you could start going into 3 in the middle of 3 and 4 out of 4. He could start the race whenever he wanted to start the race instead of in the zone, so it was completely unpredictable.

“(Ericsson) had a really good jump, and I did not. That’s what took me out of the win at the end of the race. It had nothing to do with IndyCar or the red in my opinion.”

Ferrucci and rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen helped put a smile on 88-year-old AJ Foyt’s face in what started as the one of the saddest months of Foyt’s life after his wife of 68 years, Lucy, died.

Foyt returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with grief, but for the past three weeks, he was able to see his racing team return to prominence.

I think he was really proud,” Ferrucci said of Foyt. “There’s truly two people that understood my emotions and felt my emotions on Sunday. A.J. was one, and Michael Cannon (his engineer) was the other.

“If you look at some of the photos from that day, you can kind of see it in my eyes, just — you really have to have it in your hands and then lose it in your hands to kind of understand that feeling of when you work that hard. You have to understand you’re coming from a team with two cars, a budget that’s a quarter of the size of Penske and Ganassi, and that’s all month long. We wanted it probably that much more than everybody else that day.

“To come up that short, A.J.’s finished second and third on dominant days in the ’70s, and he talked about those races, where we had the car to win. We were by far the best car at the end of that race. Once the Team McLarens were out of it and the 10 car and the 21 had the incident in pit lane, that left us.

“We were the car to win, and yeah, just sitting third knowing there’s nothing you can do, after all that hard work, yeah, it’s a feeling that very few people would understand.

“But he was incredibly proud of I think what the organization accomplished. I’m very proud of Larry and what Larry Foyt has done with the team because Larry has had control of this team since 2007, and to see him get his first podium as a team boss and team owner at the speedway was huge.

“I think everybody was incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500