Helio Must Improve In 2010

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Although many people found the 2009 season finale dull, if you were a fan of the “red cars” – it was a nail-biter. The top three cars in points; Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe, quickly pulled away from the rest of the field and waged their own battle with Franchitti winning the race and the championship. One of the four red cars was not part of the fight the front, that being the one driven by longtime Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves.

In fact, Helio’s results began to taper off since he won the race at Texas, where he benefited from having the first pit stall and won over teammate Ryan Briscoe even though Briscoe had the superior car. He had a semi-respectable seventh-place finish in the following race at Iowa and then it was downhill from there.

Helio’s tax problems have been well documented, by now. At this time last year, it was debatable how much jail-time he would be spending – not to mention how his racing career was hanging in the balance. It simply didn’t look good for the Brazilian who was a favorite to so many. His trial started on March 2 in Miami and lasted for seven weeks. In that time, the already small driver lost thirteen pounds due to the stress that he endured. Will Power had been hired to drive Helio’s car until the legal process played out – one way or another.

As it turned out, Helio was acquitted on a Friday – the opening day of practice for the Grand Prix of Long Beach, the second race of the season. By Saturday morning, he had flown across the country and was in the car practicing. Some journalists (Bob Kravitz) openly questioned if he should be driving that weekend, as he was clearly running on pure adrenaline. Helio managed to pull out a seventh-place finish in that race. With no time to catch his breath, the IndyCar Series headed to Kansas the very next weekend where he finished second.

It appeared that Helio was on a mission to make up for the off-season that he had lost. Even though he had missed the first race, he found himself right in the championship hunt. After a magical Month of May that saw him win the pole and then his third Indianapolis 500, Helio was on a roll. He had his first hiccup at Milwaukee, where he crashed during qualifying and had to race his backup with no practice. He finished eleventh, but made up for it in the next race when he won at Texas.

That’s when the wheels began to come off of Helio’s season. Up to that point, in the five races Helio ran — his average finishing position was 4.4. After the Texas race, Helio’s average finish dropped to 10.6 – with four DNF’s. He was showing signs of inconsistency and frustration.

There are a million different theories as to what happened to cause the sudden drop-off in the final two-thirds of the season. Most agree that the pressure of his legal problems finally surfaced. Through Indianapolis, he was running on adrenaline and energy. After the highly-charged win at Indy, he simply became emotionally drained and didn’t have the energy to focus on the remainder of the season after the Month of May.

We also now know that Helio is soon to be a father. Some speculated as early as May that his girlfriend was expecting, but when asked – he flat-out lied. I can’t say that I blame him, given the circumstances. All of the outside pressures with that bit of news would be enough to take his focus off of his duties.

There was also the Will Power factor. In Helio’s absence, Will Power proved to be more than just an adequate fill-in. He proved himself worthy of full-time staus at Team Penske. He drove in a few races for Penske as a reward for a job well-done and stayed with the team all season, sometimes in just a cheerleading role, until he was seriously injured in practice at Sonoma. No matter how good of a working relationship they had, it could not have been very comforting to see Power sitting behind the wall as Helio kept racking up the DNF’s.

Only the very hard-hearted would not give Helio a pass for the 2009 season. To go thorough what he had to endure from the time the indictments were handed down in October of 2008 until his acquittal in April of 2009, could have crushed the strongest of spirits. Some would say that he far surpassed all expectations by winning two races, one of which was the Indianapolis 500, and finishing fourth in the championship. Many consider that performance almost miraculous.

But those same people will also tell you that Helio had better rest up mentally this offseason. He needs to get the strain of the tax trial behind him, while also dealing with the excitement/anxiety of becoming a father for the first time. Regardless of what is going on in Helio’s personal life, he needs to get his head right before the 2010 season begins. Roger Penske is a fair man, fairer than most people give him credit for. But The Captain won’t put up with the continued lackluster performance that Helio produced in the second half of the 2009 season.

While some of the crashes were clearly the fault of something breaking on the car, many of Helio’s problems in 2009 were self-induced. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if this streak continues for Helio in 2010, that he may not be a part of Team Penske in 2011. Although he has done it several times before, I get the impression that Roger Penske doesn’t really want to run three cars full-time right now.

Ryan Briscoe certainly proved he is worthy of a long-term career at Team Penske. Will Power proved himself in the short time that he spent in a cockpit at Penske. It’s now Helio that has to prove that HE is worthy. It’s an uncomfortable position. Two years ago, this was unquestionably Helio’s team. He is now only the third best driver on the team. When Al Unser, Jr. was brought into the Penske fold in 1994, Penske expanded to a three-car team that season. The following year, they went back to being a two-car team with Paul Tracy being the odd man out. In the mid-eighties, Al Unser, Sr. found himself on the outside looking in, only to be brought back for the 1987 Indy 500 to replace the injured Danny Ongais.

Helio returns to Team Penske in 2010 for his eleventh straight season with the team – a mark of longevity at team Penske that is eclipsed by only one other driver, that being Rick Mears who drove for fifteen straight seasons. Roger Penske has a history of dropping drivers before they hit the age where they are no longer competitive. He follows the theory that it’s better to cut them loose a year or two too early, than to keep them around a year or two too late. Few drivers leave the Penske fold to go on to success at other teams. Paul Tracy is about the only true exception that comes to mind. Penske realized that the rest of them were past their prime, before the drivers themselves did.

Helio may soon be fitting into this category. He turns thirty-five next May, which is a little long in the tooth for today’s IndyCar driver. Helio continues to battle the label of having never won a championship at any level. He has come close on many occasions, but was never able to close the deal.

I am a big Helio Castroneves fan. I am a fan of many drivers in the Izod IndyCar Series, but Helio is probably my favorite current driver. My hope is that the weight of his legal troubles finally caught up with him and wore him down last season. Helio is a very emotional driver. He runs on his seemingly never-ending supply of energy. Unfortunately, when he became so emotionally drained last year – that energy seemed to dissipate and he had nothing left to give. Near the end of the season, he appeared to simply be going through the motions.

I am pulling for Helio to come out of his current doldrums. The league needs his charm and charisma. It is over five months between the season finale at Homestead and the opener next spring in Brazil. Hopefully, Helio is using this time to re-charge his batteries in order to hit the ground running. If he gets off to a fast start in 2010, this time he needs to sustain it throughout the entire season. Otherwise, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the IndyCar driving career of Helio Castroneves.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “Helio Must Improve In 2010”

  1. I think you are spot-on here, George. I, too, am rooting for Helio to get it together this coming season. I think he has the talent and drive to become our next 4 time winner at Indy. He just has to put everything behind him, grab on to the energy and joy that comes from being a father the first time, and channel that into driving. By all accounts, he is a truly kind and enthusiastic guy. I think his personality is part of what makes him a good driver. And if that is being squelched by the trauma of last season, he won’t be a good driver. I’m guessing Roger won’t stick it out with him if this season doesn’t produce results. There are too many up-and-coming drivers out there ready to jump into a choice ride.

  2. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I suspect if and when Helio wins the championship it will be with a great deal of consistency, and gutty driving when his car is not as fast as he would like.

  3. Helio wins Indy. That’s enough for Helio. Mears was never a threat at a championship, especially after his Sanair wreck. Helio is going nowhere as long as he’s a threat for #4 (or #5).

    • Agreed.

      Plus, Helio might have never won a championship for Penske… but I don’t recall him gagging on a solid 25 point lead by stuffing his 1st place car into the outside pit wall either :!: I don’t get this Helio-has-a short-rope talk :idea:

      I think Helio & Ryan will be championship contenders again… & Will Power will discover its much harder to be a full-time “star” @ Penske. JMO.

    • billytheskink Says:

      How was a 3-time CART Champion never a threat at a championship?

      No championships post-Sanair, but Mears was sqaurely in the championship hunt in 1989, and wound up second to Fittipaldi.

  4. loose_lugnut Says:

    Funny how Helio always has been the one never to win the championship. If you really look at all his years it really is the same story year after year. Always win a few races but never clinches the championship, partly I question his focus on the whole year, and this continues to be a trend year after year. Funny how things work out

  5. Great piece George,
    At 34, I also how much the full-time presence of Will Power is playing on his mind. Tim Cindric may have thought that Penske had the perfect sub, but may have in fact found the perfect replacement for Helio.

    Whether they rest the No. 3 and let Power make the No. 12 his own is yet to be seen, but I think Will’s excellent performances was the final nail for Helio. I have no doubt that Helio will be around until 2011 or even 2012; at which point we may see him become a “driver-coach”.
    Who knows – when Helio retires, the powers that be at the top of the sport could utilise Helio to encourage drivers from South and Central America and lead them through the ranks.

    (Actually I also think that in time, Hunter-Raey could also be a replacement for Kanaan when he retires in a few years).

  6. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    you are crazy if you think RP will ever cut loose a 3-time 500 winner. HCN owns that team. he can suck big time next year and he’s still there. you need to get real.

  7. Great post as always George. My take, and simply my opinion, as long as HCN wins Indy, The Captain will be happy. Indy matters more to Penske than IZOD IndyCar Championships. If you want a guy that compete at Indy, Helio is as good as it gets!

  8. “Few drivers leave the Penske fold to go on to success at other teams. Paul Tracy is about the only true exception that comes to mind.”

    Tom Sneva would argue that point with you George. Especially considering he got his sweet revenge by winning the 1983 Indianapolis 500 over Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, both of them driving Penske PC-11’s. To be fair, Sneva did admit it wasn’t until after he left Penske racing that he realized how good they were.

    Helio’s issue is he’s never been a championship threat for the entire season throughout his career. It’s odd that he can handle the pressure of Indianapolis with relative ease, but into the last 3rd of the season he makes the big mistakes that take him out of contention. Contrast him with Dixon or Franchitti, who can shrug off a bad race result and come through with the finish needed to close the gap. Helio and Ryan Briscoe seem to “jinx” themselves out of championship contention when the heat is on.

  9. Good one George and I think Helio will have his hands full with just the Penske teammates of Will Power and my boy Ryan Briscoe.

  10. Roger Penske’s biggest goal seems to be the 500. And, Helio could set the record for 500’s, so I don’t think he’ll go anywere. Plus, he won twice.

    • Who has won twice? Helio has 3 Indy 500s. I agree with George on this one. Yes Helio could set a record, but he could also wash out. The Captain now has two great drivers besides HCN that could take the checkered at Indy. The Captain doesn’t keep drivers to see what could happen. He has always been a business man first and if HCN follows on his trend down the slope he would become a sort of gimmick. If the captian wanted a gimmick, he would have signed Danica. Don’t get me wrong HCN is great but there comes a time when things turn.

  11. Very good article. While I (along with most of the indycar fans out there) remain a fan of Helio, I am wishing greater success on guys who showed promise for years and now are on the top team (read: Briscoe and WP). I voted for his slide to continue, and Helio to be let go after this year. True, he’s won Indy THREE TIMES but, Roger is no fool and if Helio isn’t performing he won’t was a third car on him when he has two other very talented drivers.

    side note: *if* Helio gets let go, I don’t see him retiring, but joining up as a driver for his old teammate, de Ferran. But that’s enough future speculation to give me a headache…

  12. I would disagree that Roger Penske only cares about Indy. He is a racer at heart. He is just like every other team owner and wants to win as many races as possible. If he wins Indy thats an added bonus for the record books for him. If he cares only about Indy, then why would he bother to spend all the money/effort he does employing the best drivers and staff for the rest of the season? Just for purposes of winning Indy? I don’t think so. That would be a odd business structure which we know Roger Penske would not even bother with.

  13. I’m late on this, but I’ll type it anyway.

    From a historical standpoint, the Indy 500 is the main accomplishment which gets remembered. I never hear AJ Foyt referred to as 6-time USAC National Champion. I only hear 4-time Indy 500 winner. You have to be a hard-core open-wheel fan to remember the series winner stats. But Indy500 winners, particularly multiple winners, are more commonly known. And you know when the driver’s obit is printed, it’ll say (as of now) 3-time Indy500 Winner Helio Castroneves, regardless of anything else he does.

    I’m not sure what Penske’s personal priorities and plans are, but my gut feeling is that the prestige of being a 500 winner, both from a sponsorship side and a bragging-rights side, far outweighs anything he’d get for winning the Indycar series.

    Point being: he’ll run Helio as long as he things Helio has a good chance of winning the Indy 500. And since he’s already won 3, there’s a very good chance he’ll win 4 if he stays with Penske. Winning 3 times means he knows how to win it. Having done it recently means he hasn’t forgotten. Right now I think Helio is more likely to end his career with 4 wins than Tony Kanaan will have won once (and I’m a TK fan).

    Unless Helio seriously unravels next year (on or off the track), I can’t imagine Penske dropping him.

  14. Helio just had an off year in 2009. Every driver has them. He’ll be back on top in 2010. I got a big feeling he’ll being winning #4 at Indy and he WILL be a championship contender. And maybe the it will finally be his big moment as Mr. Champion.

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