INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves does his homework.
It’s perhaps most overlooked about the effervescent “Dancing With The Stars” winner. The goofy cartoon character who can stroll into a Southern California steakhouse in disguise but then immediately command the room. The fence-climbing ball of energy who wakes up with a smile on his face according to teammates.
Everything – even a mastery of the majestically difficult Indianapolis Motor Speedway – seems to come easy.
But the Brazilian actually is working harder than ever into his late 40s to maintain his razor-sharp skills on the track while also plotting a long-term future in racing.
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“It’s funny that I love the feeling that I have to keep proving it,” Castroneves told NBC Sports recently.
“I know, I know,” Castroneves said with a laugh. “But it’s proving to myself that I know I can be better and that motivation to keep trying to find the limit. That’s why I keep finding ways. If it’s not only in the race car, it’s making the sponsors and the team united or better or going to the next level.
“I feel that responsibility.”
A captivating mix of big-game auto racing hunter (an Indy 500 and two Rolex 24 wins in the past 16 months) and savvy businessman (the car dealership he co-owns with Roger Penske is part of a burgeoning portfolio), Castroneves remains among the most appealing stars of the NTT IndyCar Series two decades into his career.
Recently polling third in an IndyCar popularity survey, Castroneves, 47, is the oldest driver featured on the cover of the 2022 IndyCar media guide’s “Defy Everything” campaign (which also includes Josef Newgarden, Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta) by at least a decade.
But belying the off-the-wall and happy-go-lucky persona is some serious ambition that includes team ownership – possibly even at Meyer Shank Racing, where he has embraced the role of team leader who’s been given a fresh start at ushering an upstart team into the IndyCar establishment.
With a laugh that Castroneves is “woke,” Mike Shank (co-owner with Jim Meyer of the No. 06 Dallara-Honda that Castroneves drove to the IMS Winners Circle last year) told NBC Sports that the driver “would love to have some equity (in the team). But I don’t know if he wants to pay for it.
“I’m joking – somewhat,” Shank said. “Helio has made a lot of money, but he wants to build his life after this. So he’s very aware when Jim and I are sitting with potential sponsors or a partner, an OEM. He wants to know what’s going on. He wants to be involved.
“And people want to be around him. The reason I worry with Helio is I have not found anyone to match him in the boardroom, or at a dinner or a corporate event. There’s nobody. Helio is just complete. You can argue about where he’s at in his life with racing, but if he wasn’t going to race anymore, I’ve still got to figure out a way to keep Helio here for whatever he wants to do. That’s kind of our challenge right now.”
Whether at MSR or another team, a minority stake certainly is enticing for Castroneves, who obviously took Penske’s words of wisdom to heart after 20 years racing for the business icon from 2001-20.
“I’m not thinking about it, but I’m preparing for when that day happens,” Castroneves said. “I remember Rick Mears saying, ‘Man, I woke up and this is it. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ (Bobby) Rahal, same thing when I spoke with him many, many years ago. ‘Yeah, I just lost the motivation.’ “I hope that never happens to me. However, it’s undeniable. You can’t just say it’s not going to happen.
“But maybe the love for (racing) goes another way. You see all the amazing champion drivers with the same passion that I have getting involved (with ownership) somehow. Andretti, Rahal, Roger, Jimmy Vasser, Wayne Taylor … I’d love to be that kind of person as well because it’s my entire life.
“So whatever is going to be, I don’t know. I’m certainly looking. It’s something I thought about when I moved to IMSA. I don’t think I’d be a good team owner on my own because I understand more the racing, not so much the technical and financial side. So the best way for me is partner with someone.”
But don’t reserve a spot on the pit box just yet for Castroneves, who says “the passion for me racing is still very much” and has given no indication of hanging it up to those who know him well.
“I think in his mind, Helio’s going to drive until he’s 85,” Ricky Taylor, his sports car teammate from 2018-20 at Penske, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “He might need to come for Round 2 of sports cars. He’s still got that childish passion for it like when he was just karting. He doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”
Said Oliver Jarvis, who teamed for the first time with Castroneves in MSR’s Acura DPi during the Rolex 24 at Daytona victory in January: “Helio brings a lot to a team and did an incredible job in Daytona. Despite his four Indy victories, he’s probably underrated.”
This late-career surge would have seemed improbable just a few years ago when Penske moved Castroneves from full-time IndyCar to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and it seemed even less likely when he joined MSR for a partial schedule last year around the Indy 500.
“Not being part of our team anymore I think in some ways rejuvenated him,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric told NBC Sports. “Sometimes you get too comfortable in a situation and when Helio no longer drove for us, he knew the end was near, or he had to step it up. He rededicated himself in a lot of ways and was determined to succeed. Indy was where he knew he could do it. At some point, Father Time does catch up to you, and you can’t keep up with younger guys. It’s just a fact of life.
Let’s do it again!! https://t.co/ahVedIlWDa
— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) May 12, 2022
“But Indy is a different thing, and it’s amazing he’s doing as well as he’s doing at that age. You can see whether Al (Unser) Sr., (A.J.) Foyt, you can prolong your time at Indy because experience does matter there.”
It’s why Castroneves still must be considered a threat to become the first five-time winner ever of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – even after he crashed his Honda in a test last month and qualified 27th last weekend. Last year, he led only 13 of the first 193 laps before charging to the front and outdueling Palou.
“Believe me, he is so good at Indy, I see him as a real threat to be the guy with five,” Penske told NBC Sports. “And there couldn’t be anything more exciting to see him win this race five times.”
Castroneves is well aware of the opportunity and is trying to capitalize accordingly.
He has spent much of the year dashing around the country to promotional and sponsor appearances while popping in between his residences in Key Biscayne, Florida (where he is remodeling a new property), Atlanta (where his partner, Adriana, and their daughter, Mikaella, live full time) and Indianapolis.
He also squeezes in regular trips to the MSR shop near Columbus, Ohio, and estimated he spent less than 30 days combined at his homes during the first three months of the year.
“I’ve been all over the place, but I don’t mind with so many opportunities are happening now,” he said. “Look, that’s what we need to do. We need to take advantage of this amazing, important fact that I’m the only one, as of right now, with an opportunity to win No. 5. We’ve got to make that aware. I believe people are really passionate about racing and want to see history.”
If he is able to enter the Indy record books for the second consecutive year, expect a scene just as memorable as last year’s exuberant victory party that made 135,000 fans forget about their pandemic-disrupted lives for at least 30 minutes.
“You love to have that four-time winner, but then the way he celebrated it by not just climbing the fence but running the frontstretch,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles told NBC Sports. “It was Dan Wheldon-esque in terms of the passion for winning at the Speedway. And you couldn’t ask for a better four-time champion. He’s learned to love the history. He’s perfect.”
Mike Shank’s favorite story about Castroneves’ commitment nearly went untold.
A few days ahead of his debut with the MSR sports car team at Michelin Road Atlanta last November, Castroneves quietly entered the team’s paddock and climbed into the cockpit of the No. 60 Acura. Then he climbed out again. And then in again, practicing for the driver switches that are critical in endurance racing.
For the better part of an hour, Shank watched from under a nearby awning as Castroneves familiarized himself with the car’s buttons, knobs and switches.
“It’s a super complicated car, and he just wanted to get his head right because Helio hadn’t been in that world” for nearly 10 months since his last start in a prototype, Shank said. “No one’s watching. No one’s there. And he just kept doing the work.
“That is a snapshot of what he’s about still to this day. That kind of drive and emotion. Maybe he feels like he does have to work a little harder now to get the same performance.”
Castroneves said “I was just doing my homework!” to get familiar with the car’s systems and seat belts. But he agrees that it’s another way that the late-career move to IMSA (which he joined full time in 2018) has helped sharpen his racecraft.
“I guess I was very close-minded on being the best in IndyCar and became a perfectionist on that only,” he said. “Once I started doing different racing, I realized there was so much more. When I jumped to IMSA, I discovered this whole new world.”
— Rolex24Hours (@Rolex24Hours) January 31, 2022
Within the walls of Team Penske, Ricky Taylor said Castroneves was nicknamed “The Parrott” because he could study any driver’s data and mimic the style to improve his performance.
“That’s a lot easier said than done,” Taylor said. “Anyone can look at data and say, ‘I need to brake later, go to power sooner,’ but it’s a whole different thing to actually apply it, and I think that’s one of his talents. He takes lots of notes and is very methodical about what he learned and needs to improve.
“He’s intense on the funny, happy side and also on the intense on the serious work side. He doesn’t have a middle ground where he’s just doing nothing. When he’s at the racetrack, he’s either going crazy, talking to fans, dancing around, or he’s really hard at work.”
Taylor first hung out with Castroneves in New York for an Acura-organized media tour in January 2018. He’d seen his new IMSA teammate win “Dancing With the Stars” but figured the high-wattage approach to life couldn’t be real.
“I always had this big idea of him in my head of he’s this humongous personality, and I always thought he just put it on for TV,” Taylor said. “Then we did this media tour, and he’s really a lot of fun and super funny and nice. And that’s just him all the time. He’s just a really happy guy. He wakes up always in a good mood. He’s always positive. He’s always fun to be around. He’s always the life of the party, and I was blown away. People are such a fan of his personality. I was like, I hope that’s actually him, and it turned out it was.
Castroneves and Taylor won the 2020 championship in the final season pairing a 40something from Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a 20something from Orlando, Florida.
Taylor had his doubts the coupling would work well. “For people coming into sports car racing from F1, IndyCar or NASCAR, the fear is always they’re not going to take the time to learn what it takes to get through traffic, appreciate the car has to last 24 hours and be a team player.”
But Castroneves took to all the nuances of sports cars while bending over backward to welcome Taylor into the Penske fold.
12H de Sebring 2019 : RICKY TAYLOR (USA) & HELIO CASTRONEVES (USA)
IMSA #imsa #fiawec #SuperSebring #12hofsebring #worldendurancechampionship #24heuresdumans #autosport #motorsport #endurance #racing #motorsportphotographer #racecar #mpsagency #canon @fiawec_offical … pic.twitter.com/K1yx7ONxgj
— MPS AGENCY (@MPS__AGENCY) March 11, 2022
“It was super intimidating to be his teammate, because that was really his home, the only place he’d ever driven,” Taylor said. “Everybody on the team, all 500 people, know exactly who he is, and he has some history with almost all of them. You go through the shop and see all his Indy 500 helmets, and he’s a superstar there.
“He’s just a loving guy. From Day 1, he just started calling me, ‘Teammate’ and ‘Hey Teammate, how it’s going?’ Just an affectionate nickname. From the beginning, he set the tone and he really welcomed me. Having somebody like him always having my back was very positive.”
While Castroneves’ passionate defense of his teammate after an incident with Pipo Derani at Road Atlanta two years ago was well-publicized, Taylor saw the support in many other ways behind the scenes.
— Motorsports on NBC (@MotorsportsNBC) October 18, 2020
“I remember we had an issue at the first test that was my first sign that this guy is going to be special,” Taylor said. “He went and talked to the engine guy who explained what was wrong, and Helio could explain it to me and made sure he understood exactly what was going on. That was the approach he took to everything. He struggled in traffic in the first couple of races, but by the end of his third year, he was the best in the business in traffic.
“The thing that came most naturally was he’s a great teammate.”
That benefits Castroneves now in leading MSR with 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud (who also drove for Penske). Shank said the pair’s “wealth of knowledge” is invaluable for navigating the Brickyard.
“You can’t buy that experience level,” Shank said. “We’ve got two real contenders, two top five or six guys who just know what they want for car positioning, strategy and chess movements.”
But while Pagenaud’s strength away from Indy is his meticulous style and technical precision, Castroneves’ gregariousness is a study in contrast.
“It’s hard to walk around with him at times,” Shank said. “I went to dinner with him and Simon at the Brazilian steakhouse in downtown Long Beach. We kind of slithered in there. We had hats on and stuff. And pretty soon people started noticing him, and here comes a glass of milk that someone bought and sent to our table.
“I’ve got a winning deal because people want to be next to him. I’ve got a guy that’s arguably the most popular in the series. Certainly in May, he’s going to be the most popular. And he’s a hell of a driver still. He’s great with our sponsors. He always comes with ideas about getting more people involved. Just all kinds of business ideas. Because he gets it and wants to be involved in racing whenever he chooses to be done.”
Thank you guys ..the cake was delicious!! https://t.co/NbJTpH6VFD
— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) May 10, 2022
Castroneves laughs when recalling the night at the steakhouse (“Mike never had been to that place, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”) and then quickly position the anecdote as an example of why Shank (a former driver who slowly built his team into a premier level contender in multiple series) is a perfect fit.
“I think I’m in the point of my career that I’m glad I have someone like Mike,” Castroneves said. “It’s not like Roger that he’s been here so long and knows everything. Mike has been through very difficult times, but he’s the one coming up. He’s the next star. It’s great to be part of helping him go to that next level.”
Castroneves remains invested with Penske, though. Six years ago, he partnered with Penske (who also owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series) and his nephew Jeff on the dealership in New Holland, Pennsylvania, that sells Ford, Jeep, Chrysler and Toyota. The business alliance has brought Castroneves and Penske even closer than when they won three Indy 500s together.
“I offered Helio a chance to have a third of it, so he’s jumped right in,” Penske said. “And he’s really getting to be a student of the game. We provided him the opportunity to be a business partner, and he certainly is part of the family when you think about that today.
“He’s a great guy to have. He lights the place up when he’s there.”
#60for60 requires a fence climb.
— Meyer Shank Racing (@MeyerShankRac) January 30, 2022
Castroneves, who also manages a handful of other personal endorsements (which he playfully hawked with stickers plastered across the hat he wore during a practice interview last week), has attended national dealer conferences and gotten involved in some major decision-making.
“It’s great that people see I just like to learn,” he said. “I’m not going to make the call always or anything like that, but when they ask me, at least I understand it.”
Taylor said Castroneves hasn’t shared his long-term vision for team ownership, but “I’m sure he’s got some plan of the rest of his career up his sleeve. I think that if he was to start a team or something like that, he’s the kind of person that everybody wants to be a part of whether it’s partners or drivers or sponsors. If he was to do it, I’m sure he’d be great at it, because he’s got that X factor that you want to have.”
Cindric, who became one of Castroneves’ best friends while calling strategy in his first three Indy 500 wins, believes IndyCar would benefit greatly from having Castroneves involved beyond his driving career “as long as he knows his lane” and is removed from the daily accounting and finances of team.
“With Helio, it’s always a matter of playing to your strengths,” Cindric said. “I don’t think he’d enjoy having a controlling interest in a race team. I don’t think it would be good for him overall or good for his family. Not many people make money at racing unless there’s a business they leverage.
“As long as Helio enjoys it and is surrounded by good people and puts good people in place to do the operational side of it, I think it would be a really good thing for him and a next step for his career. But he’s got to really understand his role. I could see him calling a race and making decisions (as a strategist). He understands enough of that to stay involved competitively. Setting up the cars and operating stuff, no. But he definitely can be a great ambassador and closer for an organization and open doors others can’t.”
And all that homework has paid off with perhaps the most powerful ally in racing.
“I feel my relationship with me and Roger and his family actually got stronger than before,” Castroneves said. “Because now I’m not an employee. I’m not part of the team.
“I’m a friend. And I’ve seen with his friends how he is, because I’ve been so many years with him. And it feels very, very special.”