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

0 Comments

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.”

2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Schedule, TV info, start times, entry lists, notable drivers, more

2 Comments

The new year brings the start of a new era for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which will open the 2023 schedule with the 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

A new premier class for prototypes is the overriding story entering the 24-hour endurance race that unofficially kicks off the major-league racing season.

The new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars of the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) top category will re-establish a bridge to the 24 Hours of Le Mans while bringing a new layer of engine electrification to IMSA.

With at least a few of the cars on the grid at Daytona also slated to race at Le Mans in June, it’s possible for the first time in decades (since the “Ford vs. Ferrari” battles) to have the same car win the overall title at Daytona and Le Mans.

The GTP category will feature four manufacturers, two of which are new to IMSA’s premier division. Porsche Motorsport (with Team Penske) and BMW (with Rahal Letterman Lanigan) will be fielding LMDh prototypes, joining (now-defunct) DPi category holdovers Acura (Meyer Shank Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing) and Cadillac (Chip Ganassi Racing, Action Express Racing).

Here’s what else you need to know ahead of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener Jan. 29-30 at Daytona International Speedway:


NOTABLE DRIVER ADDITIONS 

The Rolex 24 will feature 10 active drivers from the NTT IndyCar Series, including the IMSA debuts of Team Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who will be teamed in an LMP2 entry (teammate Will Power unfortunately had to withdraw from this debut).

Colton Herta will move into the GTP category with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud return with Meyer Shank Racing to defend their overall 2022 Rolex 24 victory. Scott Dixon also returns in the premier category with Chip Ganassi Racing for his 20th Rolex 24 start and third consecutive in the No. 01 Cadillac.

Other IndyCar drivers in the field: Romain Grosjean will make his debut in GTD Pro with Iron Lynx Racing (as a precursor to driving a GTP Lamborghini next year); Devlin DeFrancesco (Rick Ware Racing) and Rinus VeeKay (TDS Racing) are in LMP2; and Kyle Kirkwood will return in GTD with Vasser Sullivan.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric also will return, teaming with DeFrancesco in an LMP2 entry for Rick Ware Racing.


CAR COUNT

The Rolex 24 field was capped at 61 cars, matching last year’s field (which was the largest since 2014). The field was capped because of the space limitations for the LMDh cars of GTP in the pits and garages.

Click here for the official 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona entry list.


STARTING LINEUP

Tom Blomqvist captured the first pole position of the GTP era, qualifying defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing in first with the No. 60 ARX-06 Acura that he shares with Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

The No. 7 Porsche 963 of Porsche Penske Motorsports will start second.

Click here for the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona starting lineup


RACE BROADCAST

The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona will be streamed across the NBC Sports AppNBCSports.com and Peacock, which will have coverage of the event from flag to flag.

Broadcast coverage of the race coverage will begin Saturday, Jan. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC and move to USA Network from 2:30-8 p.m. and then will be exclusively on Peacock and IMSA.TV from 8-10 p.m. Coverage will return to USA Network from 10 p.m. to midnight and then move to Peacock/IMSA.TV until 6 a.m.

From 6 a.m. until noon on Sunday, Jan. 29, Rolex 24 coverage will be available on USA Network. The conclusion of the Rolex 24 will run from noon through 2 p.m. on NBC.

HOW TO WATCH IMSA ON NBC SPORTS: Broadcast schedule for 2023

Leigh Diffey will announce the race alongside analysts Calvin Fish, Townsend Bell. Brian Till also will be as an analyst during the race.

Marty Snider will anchor coverage from the Peacock Pit Box with NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton and IndyCar on NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe.

Kevin Lee, Parker Kligerman, Dillon Welch, Hannah Newhouse, and Georgia Henneberry will be the pit reporters. Dave Burns and Lee also will handle play by play during the race.

Other events that will be streamed on Peacock from Daytona during January (all times ET):

Jan. 21: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 2:05 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 12:20 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA Rolex 24 qualifying, 1:25 p.m.

Jan. 27: BMW Endurance Michelin Pilot Challenge, 1:45 p.m.


ROLEX 24 COVERAGE FROM NBC SPORTS

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi take their storied rivalry to a new level at Daytona

Pfaff Motorsports returns to Rolex 24 in premier parking spot punching above its weight

Cadillac, Acura battle for top of the speed charts

Herta, Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of overall win at Rolex 24

Wayne Taylor Racing takes a step up to the next level with Andretti Autosport

Austin Cindric seeks to join legendary club of Rolex 24-Daytona 500 winners

Helio Castroneves recalls “Days of Thunder” moment in 2022 Rolex 24 victory

The “Bus Bros” tackle the “Bus Stop” for Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts

Romain Grosjean adds Rolex 24 at Daytona to his crown jewel career

Tom Blomqvist beats the clock to win Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position

GTP cars make debut in “Gymkhana”-level traffic

Five things to watch in the new GTP class as a golden era of sports cars returns

Cadillac unveils paint schemes for LMDh cars

Austin Cindric, Devlin DeFrancesco, Pietro Fittipaldi teaming up in LMP2

IndyCar drivers in the 61st Rolex 24


ROLEX 24 DAILY SCHEDULE, START TIMES

Here’s a rundown of everything happening at Daytona International Speedway over the last two weeks in January, starting with the Roar test session. Rolex 24 start times and full schedule:

Wednesday, Jan. 18

7 a.m.: GTP garages open

4 p.m.: Non-GTP garages open

4 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers load-in (park only)

6:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Thursday, Jan. 19

7 a.m.: Garages, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers open

8:30 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection

10 a.m.: Rolex 24 Media Day

2 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

5:15 p.m.: Track walk

7:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Friday, Jan. 20

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:45-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

9:30-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-2:15 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

2:30-4 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

4:15-6 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (GTD/LMP3/LMP2 4:15-5:45; 4:30-6: GTD Pro, GTP)

8 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Saturday, Jan. 21

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:40-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge qualifying

9:30-11 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

2:05-2:50 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 1 (streaming on Peacock)

3:10 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

4:30-5:30 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

6:30-8:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10 p.m.: Garages close

Sunday, Jan. 22

7 a.m.: Garages open

10:15-11:15 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

12:20-1:05 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 2 (streaming on Peacock)

1:25-3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Rolex 24 qualifying (streaming on Peacock)

8:30 p.m.: Garages close

Wednesday, Jan. 25

6 a.m.: Garages open

7:30-10 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, non-GTP

8 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 load-in

10-11:30 a.m.: Track walk

10 a.m.-noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship car photos

11:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge team manager briefing

Noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team manager briefing

12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship new driver briefing

Noon-2 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety and technical inspection, non-GTP

1:45-2:30 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

2:45-3:45 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

2:30-7:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, GTP only

4-5:30 p.m.: Track walk

6:45 p.m.: Garages close

Thursday, Jan. 26

7 a.m.: Garages open

9-9:30 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

9:45-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:05 a.m.-12:35 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

12:55-1:10 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 qualifying

2:25-3 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge qualifying

3:20-5:05 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (3:20-5:05: GTD, LMP3, LMP2; 3:35-5:05: GTD Pro, GTP)

5:30-6:15 p.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 1

7:15-9 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10:15 p.m.: Garages close

Friday, Jan. 27

7 a.m.: Garages open

9:25-9:55 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

10:15-11 a.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 2

10:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

11:20 a.m.-12:20 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-5:45 p.m.: BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona (Michelin Pilot Challenge; streaming on Peacock)

8:45 p.m.: Garages close

Saturday, Jan. 28

6:30 a.m.: Garages open

9:45 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

12:30-12:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 engine warmup

1:30-1:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 formation laps

1:40 p.m.: The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona (starting on NBC; streaming flag to flag on Peacock)

Sunday, Jan. 29

1:40 p.m.: Finish of the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona

7:30 p.m.: Garages close