Another Milestone For Helio
Most know that I am a fan of Team Penske. If you’ve been a reader of this site for very long, you also know that I’m a longtime fan of Helio Castroneves. You can count Helio as one of two to three that I consider as my favorite current drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Since Tony Kanaan is also in this group, some might wonder if I single them out since they are both Brazilian. No, it’s strictly coincidental – but I have also pulled heavily for Vitor Meira and Raul Boesel over the years. I also count Josef Newgarden in that group. It doesn’t hurt that he’s from Nashville, but there are other reasons why I like Newgarden, as well.
I’ve had some people ask me why Helio was one of my favorites. I don’t really have a logical explanation. But do you really need logic to explain why you follow a sports team or personality? There was just something likeable about him, the first time I saw him drive for Tony Bettenhausen. I can remember reading an article about how Helio received a phone call from Emerson Fittipaldi, while he was lounging in his underwear. When he realized who he was talking to, he stood up and started searching for clothes because he didn’t think he should be speaking to Fittipaldi over the phone, while in his underwear. You’ve got to like someone that is that candid.
I remember how excitable he was the next year, while driving for Carl Hogan. He finished second at Gateway and you would’ve thought he had won the championship the way he was carrying on. His emotion and enthusiasm was contagious. I remember how disappointed I was to hear the rumors that Hogan Racing may be closing shop at the end of the 1999 season. There didn’t seem to be any obvious destination for the very likeable Brazilian.
Marlboro Team Penske cleaned house after a disastrous 1998 season. Greg Moore was slated to move to Team Penske for the 2000 season, along with Gil de Ferran. Tim Cindric had moved over from Team Rahal to oversee the rebuilding at Penske. But Moore was fatally injured at the season-ending race at Fontana in 1999. Roger Penske moved quickly to fill the spot with another promising young driver named Helio Castroneves who would be in sort of an apprenticeship role to his more experienced and established teammate and fellow Brazilian de Ferran.
Gil de Ferrran won the CART championship for Roger Penske in 2000 and 2001; while the up and coming Castroneves won his first-ever CART race at Detroit in 2000. It would be the first of six races Castroneves would win in de Ferran’s championship era. I’d say he did well as an apprentice.
Fast forward from 2000 to 2015. With his start this past week at St. Petersburg. Helio Castroneves began his sixteenth consecutive full-time season with Team Penske. Why is that significant? Because no one has driven that many seasons for Roger Penske – not even Rick Mears, who I consider to be the consummate pro and the prototypical Penske driver.
Rick Mears joined Team Penske in 1978. Technically, he was a part-time driver that first year. He was guaranteed a car for the Indianapolis 500, and a handful of other races. But he ended up driving in eleven of the seventeen races that season, and still managed to finish ninth. From that point on, Mears was full-time.
But Mears surprised everyone at the Team Penske Christmas party after the 1992 season, when he announced he was retiring from racing. He was to stay with the team in a coaching role, but he said his driving days were done. Most, myself included, figured that it wouldn’t take long for Mears to find his way back into the cockpit – especially since he was staying with the team. I thought he would somehow end up in a car for the 1993 Indianapolis 500. It didn’t happen. To his credit, Mears stuck by his retirement promise and never raced again, thus closing fifteen successful seasons of the Mears-Penske combination.
Many drivers came and left Penske after Mears’ retirement. Most notably, Al Unser, Jr. Joined the team and won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship in 1994. But Unser was part of the Penske decline of the late nineties and parted ways with The Captain after the 1999 season. But there were others who had various levels of success, yet moved on after a short stay.
Aside from Little Al, Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi had the greatest success at Team Penske after Mears retired. Fittipaldi won the 1993 Indianapolis 500 and finished second in the championship in 1993 and 1994. But a mediocre 1995 had him shipped off to the satellite team of Hogan Penske for 1996. His career ended when he suffered a broken neck in a crash in Michigan that season. Tracy won eight races between 1993-94, before moving to Newman/Haas for one year in 1995. He returned to Penske for a winless season in 1996, before winning three more races in his final year with Penske in 1997.
Other less notable names that drove for Penske in their forgettable years of 1996-99 were André Ribeiro, Alex Barron, Jan Magnussen, Tarso Marques and Gonzalo Rodriguez, who lost his life in a practice crash at Laguna Seca in 1999 while driving for Penske. Two years with no victories, Little Al’s personal problems, a Penske chassis that under-performed, an underpowered Mercedes engine and undesirable Goodyear tires forced Roger Penske to rip everything up and start over.
Penske scrapped his own chassis for the favored Reynard. He also abandoned the Mercedes engine, even though it was built by Ilmor – a company that Pesnke owned a one-fourth stake in. Goodyear’s departure eased the move to the better performing Firestone tires. It was to be a new day with Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore. But fate had a different idea.
Through the years, Helio Castroneves has won the Indianapolis 500 three times. He has contended for the IndyCar championship on numerous occasions, most recently during the 2014 season. He also made the move with Team Penske in 2002, when Penske left CART and moved to the upstart IRL.
It was a bold move, which I’m sure the young Castroneves did with some trepidation. Coming from Brazil, he had a road racing background. He was leaving the much more established open-wheel series at the time, to go run what was then an all-oval series that did not contain a lot of star power at the time.
But Castroneves believed in Roger Penske and stayed with the team. It paid off. In his first season as an IRL regular, Helio Castroneves won his second consecutive Indianapolis 500. Helio’s loyalty would eventually pay off.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2008 season, Helio Castroneves was indicted on tax-evasion charges, stemming from the whirlwind deal he signed with Penske after the death of Greg Moore. The charges and evidence did not look good for Helio. The Miami trial went all through the following winter and into the spring. As a backup, Penske hired Will Power to drive Helio’s car until the trial came to a close and a verdict was reached – one way or the other. Castroneves missed the 2009 season-opening race at St. Petersburg, as Power drove the No.3 car.
On the Friday afternoon before the second race of the season at Long Beach, Helio was acquitted. After a few interviews and a quick celebration with his family, Helio boarded Roger Penske’s jet and flew to Long Beach. He was in his car the next morning and qualified for the race. A few weeks later, Castroneves won his third Indianapolis 500.
Roger Penske could have easily dropped Helio Castroneves from his race team, when it looked as if he was going to be convicted. Many employers today would have. But Penske showed loyalty to a driver that had been loyal to him. He stood by him and it brought Penske his most recent Indianapolis 500 win.
Now Helio Castroneves has become Roger Penske’s longest tenured driver in the forty-seven years his team has been in open-wheel racing. That’s a group of drivers that includes legendary names from the past & present like Mark Donohue, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish, Juan Montoya and Will Power. To have the longest tenure compared with that group of drivers speaks volumes.
No one ever escapes Father Time. Some are more successful at fighting him off than others. Helio Castroneves will turn forty this May. So far, he shows no ravages of time. He was very competitive last weekend in St. Petersburg, and came within a couple of car lengths of winning his fourth Indianapolis 500 this past May. Helio would still like to check off the one box on his resume that has eluded him – a series championship.
But make no mistake – I’m betting that if Helio Castroneves is giving the choice of finally winning the championship or becoming only the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in history; he’ll take the fourth 500 win.
So congratulations to Helio Castroneves on becoming the driver with the most seasons of any driver to drive for Team Penske. It’s quite a milestone. I’m also betting that this will not be the final milestone in his Penske career.