Helio Needs To Let It Go
Those that follow this site know what a fan of Team Penske I am. I was at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, when Roger Penske made his debut as a car-owner with Mark Donohue as his driver. There was just something about that beautiful blue and yellow Sunoco Special that caught my eye. It was not lost on this ten year-old kid that Donohue was one of the very few college graduates in the field – holding an engineering degree from Brown University. I was also there in 1972, cheering Donohue and Roger Penske on to their first Indianapolis 500 win.
Roger Penske has since added fourteen more Indianapolis 500 victories to his resume. Four of those were earned by Rick Mears; another of my all-time favorites. The Team Penske driver that ranks just behind Mears with Indianapolis 500 victories as well as tenure with the team is current driver Helio Castroneves. Helio brought three victories to the team at the famed oval that Roger Penske cherishes so much. He is in the process of wrapping up his twelfth season driving for The Captain, while Rick Mears drove for fifteen straight seasons for Team Penske (1978 to 1992).
Followers of this site also know that of all the current drivers in the series, Helio is my favorite – but my loyalty is not blind. Helio’s emotions have been getting the best of him lately and it’s hard to defend some of his recent actions. The 2009 season was a series of high and lows for the popular Brazilian driver. After a grueling tax evasion trial that many predicted would find Helio behind bars, he joined his team in the second race of the season at Long Beach. Six weeks later, he was winning his third Indianapolis 500. Soon afterwards, his 2009 season slowly went into the tank. It was understandable and I think most that follow the series allowed him to drive in obscurity for the rest of the season.
The following year, he began the season with a ninth at São Paulo, a fourth at St. Petersburg and a win at Barber in Birmingham. But in mid-season, he went into a slump that culminated with his well-publicized meltdown at Edmonton. To his credit, he did finish the season with two wins and a fourth place finish in the points, setting expectations for 2011.
The first turn of this season saw Helio make a foolish banzai move that took out several cars, including that of his teammate, Ryan Briscoe. Helio finished twentieth in that race at St. Petersburg and followed that with a seventh place finish at Barber. At Long Beach, Castroneves collided with teammate Will Power on a re-start. Helio finished twelfth there and after another collision in the rain at São Paulo, finished twenty-first. For the first time in my memory, Helio Castroneves was a non-factor the entire month of May at Indianapolis. He qualified a very quiet sixteenth and drove silently to a forgettable seventeenth place finish, as all of Team Penske experienced a May to forget.
With the help of a couple of second-place finishes, Castroneves has improved his season in the latter half as he barely sits inside the top-ten in points. But he continues to struggle with results while his teammate, Will Power, leads the championship. Last week, he lost a lot of supporters (including me) when he took to Twitter to attack Brian Barnhart for the penalty he assessed Helio at Motegi, when Helio passed JR Hildebrand under a local yellow on the last lap. Since it was the last lap, Barnhart couldn’t assess a drive-through penalty, so Helio was sent to the end of the line of cars on the lead lap – which resulted in Helio being dropped from seventh to twenty-second.
Most know that I am not a Brian Barnhart supporter. I have criticized almost every move he has made since I started this site, but to be fair – I think Barnhart made the right call this time. There are a lot of gray areas that require black & white logic in racing. This isn’t one of them. Helio blatantly passed in a turn where a local yellow flag can be clearly seen waving. Castroneves claims that he should have been dropped back down to eighth, as if it never happened. I agree with Barnhart’s analogy of a bank robber: if the bank robber gets caught, he doesn’t just give the money back and everything is OK – he is punished.
Helio immediately went to Twitter to criticize Barnhart and referred to him as a “circus clown”. Later in the week, Castroneves wrote an article in a Brazilian newspaper where he further criticized the Chief Steward.
As Paul Tracy pointed out, when Tracy used the term “circus clown” to describe Champ Car Chief Steward Chris Kneifel, it was during a TV interview immediately during the heat of the moment. Helio had time to cool off and collect his thoughts before typing out the same term of endearment on Twitter. Furthermore, he had several days to look at the tape and re-think the entire situation before writing his article where he criticized Barnhart and said he was ruining the series single-handedly among other niceties. My question is; Why? What’s the point?
As parents, we’re always taught to pick our battles with our unruly teenagers. I would suggest Helio do the same. Helio probably still holds a grudge from Belle Isle in 2008, when Barnhart accused Helio of blocking Justin Wilson and ordered Castroneves to move over and allow Wilson to lead and go on to win the race. Then, there was the controversy in 2010 at Edmonton. None of us seemed to know or understand the ridiculous rule where a driver cannot defend his or her line by hugging the inside of the turn. Apparently most of the drivers knew it, though. As silly as it seemed at the time, Barnhart was just enforcing the rule. When the series returned to Edmonton this season, Helio smiled as he referred to himself as the defending champion of the event. It was seemingly a joke, but Helio was still getting in that jab.
Now Helio has taken separate jabs at Barnhart in print. I’ll be curious to see how Randy Bernard handles this. A hefty fine should be in order. If sponsors and fans weren’t involved, a suspension would be appropriate as well. Public criticism of officials in any sport is always subject to fines and/or suspensions. INDYCAR should be no different.
Although he hasn’t asked for it, I’ll offer up my advice to Helio, anyway: Let it go.
Yes, Barnhart’s tenure as Chief Steward has been rife with inconsistencies, but this accomplishes nothing. I’m sure Randy Bernard will make the proper call on the Chief Steward’s position in due time during the offseason. I’m of the opinion that drivers don’t need to be the ones calling for the Chief Steward’s head. Besides – on this one, Castroneves was clearly guilty as charged.
In a time where Helio’s tenure at Team Penske may be in jeopardy, Helio needs to shut his mouth and focus on the remaining two races to see if he can prevent going winless in a season for the first time since he joined Team Penske in 2000. As he continues his pointless feud with Barnhart, he is losing longtime fans that have supported him. No longer is he coming across as the fun-loving teammate to the surly Sam Hornish or the studious Gil de Ferran. He now appears to be an aging athlete who is desperately lashing out at everything and everyone as his career is winding down.
It’s not a pretty picture that Helio is leaving for fans to remember his legacy. For years, Brett Favre treated football fans with incredible feats as he played like a kid who loved the game. Unfortunately, ten years from now – Favre will still be remembered for his last three drama-filled seasons with the Jets and Vikings that left images of an old man linked to a sex scandal, who held his teams hostage during training camp in order to make them beg him to come back. Fortunately, this season – they stopped begging.
Helio should be remembered as a good driver, who always performed – especially on the stage at Indianapolis. Sadly, he is to the point where he will probably never win a championship. I don’t know if he will drive for Team Penske beyond this season or not. Personally, I hope he does. But whether he is at Team Penske in 2012, at another team or retired – I hope that Helio can let go of this feud with Brian Barnhart, remember his legacy and regain some of the dignity he has lost in the last couple of years.