My Take On The Helio Saga

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Over the last week or so, I’ve gotten a handful of e-mails asking why I haven’t written my thoughts regarding the situation regarding Helio Castroneves and his possible (probable?) move into sports cars next season. I’m not sure what an overage blogger in Nashville thinks about something really matters, but since a few have asked – here is my take.

Those few have pointed out that after all – he is one of my favorite current drivers in the series. The thing is the term favorite driver is a fluid term. Things change. I actually have a few drivers that I would consider one of my favorites, but to single one out as my favorite among current drivers is difficult.

Naming my all-time favorite driver is not near as difficult. It’s AJ Foyt, plain and simple. But at the time, he was not my favorite. That honor went to Parnelli Jones. That’s why the 1967 Indianapolis 500 did not sit well with me. Foyt won it at the expense of Parnelli Jones. I still count Jones as one of my all-time favorites, but Foyt is my favorite and I also consider him the greatest of all time. Mario Andretti fans will argue with me, but it doesn’t matter. It’s my opinion. It won’t change.

It’s sort of like arguing politics or religion with someone. Everyone has their own idea the way things should be. It’s good to listen to an argument for the other side, but when it’s all said and done – your mind normally doesn’t change. The key to it is not to get offended. I don’t hate my fellow race fans who argue that Andretti is their all-time favorite. They have a compelling argument siting the stats that show his Formula One championship in 1978, but that is countered with Foyt’s four Indianapolis 500 wins to Andretti’s one, and Foyt’s win at Le Mans in his only appearance in 1967. I won’t change their minds and they won’t change mine. We’ll have a spirited discussion and toast racing history over an adult beverage or two. If only society in general was that congenial these days, but I digress.

Anyway, back to the Helio Castroneves situation. Apparently, Helio has been told that the plan for 2018 is to scale back to only three cars, with him being the odd man out. But they have a place for Castroneves – the new Acura sports car team that Team Penske announced last week, although no drivers were officially announced. Speculation has Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya as two of the drivers, along with two others.

Normally a driver is thrilled to find out there is life after racing when their IndyCar career is almost done. But this situation is not normal. At age forty-two, Helio Castroneves may be driving better than he ever has, or at least in a long time. One thing missing from his trophy case is a series championship – of any kind. Helio has always been competitive, but he also always managed to fall short of the championship. In recent years, he has usually finished near the Top-Five. Many drivers would kill for a record like that, but Team Penske expects championships and/or Indianapolis 500 wins. While Helio delivered three Indianapolis 500 victories for Roger Penske, he has fallen short of the championship.

Helio Castroneves is in his eighteenth season with Team Penske, more than any other driver in the history of that storied team. Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish, Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., all had great success while driving for Roger Penske but none lasted anywhere close to as long as Helio has. Rick Mears drove fifteen seasons with The Captain, but Castroneves has eclipsed that by three seasons already.

The fact that Helio delivered three Indianapolis 500 wins in his ten seasons with the team has probably kept him around this long – that and the fact that he has always been competitive, even in his worst season – 2011, when he finished eleventh. Other than that season, Helio’s worst season finish for team Penske was seventh in 2000 – his first year with Penske. Castroneves has finished fourth in the final championship standings four times, and third three other seasons. Currently, Castroneves trails points leader Scott Dixon by a mere three points with five races to go.

This is not a spot a forty-two year-old driver normally finds himself in, at least not usually. AJ Foyt won his last championship in 1979 at the age of forty-four – two years after his then-unprecedented fourth Indianapolis 500. Al Unser won his third championship in 1985 at the age of forty-six. He won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1987 as a part-time driver five days before his forty-eighth birthday. There are other examples of drivers excelling well into their forties, but they are rare and usually limited to the very best drivers – probably because they are the only ones being offered rides in their forties.

Yes, I am a fan of Helio Castroneves. But I am also just as much of a fan of Tony Kanaan. Does that mean I’m partial to Brazilian drivers? No, it just so happens that two of my favorite drivers are from Brazil. I have never been one to follow Indy Lights very closely, but I remember when the both of them came to Steve Horne’s Tasman Racing. Neither of them could hardly speak English, but they sure knew how to use their right foot. Tony Kanaan won the 1997 Indy Lights championship over teammate Helio Castroneves by only four points.

The following year, they both moved into the CART PPG IndyCar World Series. Castroneves moved on to Tony Bettenhausen’s team while Kanaan moved to the Tasman seat that had been occupied by André Ribeiro, who had moved on to Marlboro Team Penske. That was in 1998 – twenty seasons ago.

Both drivers had a bumpy road before finding success. After one year, Tasman was forced to merge with Gerry Forsythe’s team. His first year with Tasman produced some decent finishes with a couple of podiums toward the end of the season. The next year with Forsythe in the McDonald’s Drive-Thru car was more of a struggle, but it did produce Kanaan’s first win – the two-mile oval at Michigan. Then there were three frustrating years with Mo Nunn’s team, before Kanaan got his big break with Honda going over to the IndyCar Series with Andretti-Green Racing. Kanaan seemed to blossom with a team that had chemistry and a powerful Honda engine to go along with it. This pairing led to many years of success and the 2004 IndyCar championship. KV Racing became Kanaan’s home from 2011 through the 2013 season, when he won the Indianapolis 500. The following year found Kanaan at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he has been mostly competitive but has won only one race – the 2014 season-finale at Fontana.

Helio’s path was far different. He struggled to a seventeenth-place finish with Bettenhausen his rookie season. The following year, he drove for Carl Hogan in an effort that was vastly scaled down to the Rahal and Penske organizations he had been associated with earlier in the decade. By the end of the season that saw Helio finish in fifteenth – Castroneves had been told that the team was closing its doors. In a tragic twist of fate – Greg Moore, who had already signed with Marlboro Team Penske for the 2000 season, was fatally injured in the season-finale at Fontana. Helio had shown promise as a rookie with underfunded teams, so he was tabbed to replace the late Moore for the 2000 season. The rest is history.

Eighteen years and three Indianapolis 500 victories later, Helio Castroneves is still driving for Team Penske. Though some don’t have the admiration for The Captain that I do, there is no denying that the man is loyal to his employees. As long as you produce and play by the rules – drivers and crewmen can have a long career at Team Penske. Roger Penske stood by Castroneves during his income tax evasion trial in the fall of 2008 that spilled over into the 2009 season-opener (which led to Will Power’s arrival at Team Penske). He also stayed with him as he suffered through that terrible 2011 season.

As the current season comes to a close, Helio Castroneves is poised to win his first season championship ever. He is also on the verge of stepping out of an Indy car for the last at any track other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Quite honestly, I’m torn on this. I hate to see the IndyCar career of Helio Castroneves come to an end for obvious reasons. But I also think Helio has been handed a wonderful opportunity. This is a chance for Helio to prolong his career in doing something he truly loves and is very good at. Plus, Roger Penske would not be offering the sports car ride if he didn’t need Castroneves. There are many drivers very capable of performing in this new opportunity, but Roger Penske has chosen Castroneves. I’m not so sure Helio would be doing his career any favors by lobbying too hard to stay in IndyCar for another year or two.

On the flip side, losing Helio Castroneves as a full-time driver will be a huge blow to the Verizon IndyCar Series. To mainstream (and corporate) America, Helio Castroneves is the best known name in the series. He is more well-known than any American driver or any of the former champions over the past decade. He is fun to listen to outside of the car and a joy to watch on the track – the move at the start in Toronto on Sunday being a perfect example. But at least it looks as if we’ll still be able to enjoy Helio Castroneves for the Month of May for the foreseeable future as he continues to pursue his fourth and possibly fifth Indianapolis 500 victory.

But this is my take – Helio has five races this season to wrap up his first championship. If he can do that, great! If he can’t, well add that to this list of other seasons where he came close but fell short. But after twenty IndyCar seasons and at the age of forty-two, I tend to think that Helio Castroneves goes exactly where Roger Penske needs for him to go. If that is to go back to IndyCar for the 2018 season, that’s where Helio needs to go. If Roger Penske determines his organization is best helped by Castroneves moving into the new Acura sports car team, then that is where Helio needs to go.

Regardless how the remainder of this season plays out, Helio is still on top of his game at the age of forty-two, a rarity in this sport. And even though he may not know where he’ll be racing next season, he knows he has a job doing what he loves – racing.

Not many drivers in the history of this sport, or any other sports for that matter, have had that luxury. They either had their careers cut way too short by injury, or they were deemed over the hill at a relatively young age and were forced out in an ugly way. Helio Castroneves has been given a true gift – to be able to go out near the top after a long and storied career and to continue racing in another series.

My hope is that Helio will resist the urge to ride the wave of popularity with IndyCar fans and put that gift in jeopardy. It would be real tempting to try and leverage fan support to get one more IndyCar season out of Roger Penske. But in the grand scheme of things, is it really worth risking his relationship with The Captain and a possible good run in sports cars just to get one or two more seasons that may not go as well as this one? I think not. I think it would get ugly and would not be good for anyone.

So as much as it pains me as a fan, I think the best thing for Castroneves and Team Penske may not be what’s best for the Verizon IndyCar Series. That’s for Helio Castroneves to ride off into the IndyCar sunset and resume his career with the new Team Penske Acura sports car effort, before things do turn ugly. That’s my take and I’m sticking with it.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “My Take On The Helio Saga”

  1. S0CSeven Says:

    OK, but since his win in Detroit in 2014, he’s amassed 1 win in 54 starts ….. a record slightly over 1%…….. and he’s driving a Penske for Team Penske with Roger on his pit box. A team with all their special shock absorbers etc. He’s been a good driver but he really should be better driving for that team.

    I think it’s time to put him out to stud (or something).

    • On the other hand, there are plenty of occasions where Roger’s strategy has cost Castroneves victories, and likely championships.

    • On the other hand, Helio finished 2nd or 3rd in 13 of those same 54 races (and if you count Iowa 2017, that’s 14 podiums), which means that at literally about one out of every four races, he’s gonna be standing up there on the podium, flying the colors of your sponsor. Given that there are only three other drivers who can come close to saying such a thing (Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, both with 16 podiums since Detroit 2014 and Will Power, with 18 podiums in that time frame), that tells me that Helio hasn’t really lost a step, and is performing right at a rate with his teammates. Sure, wins is a metric you can use for such a thing, but it’s a pretty narrow metric. Widen the scope of how you define “success”, and it’s a lot harder call to make.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    At this point, Helio has made it. His future career is, to some extent, whatever he wants it to be, not what Roger Penske or anyone else wants it to be. That is to say, whatever Helio decides to do at this point isn’t really “wrong”. Racing sports cars, whether due to desire, money, or loyalty to Penske, is a fine decision.
    If he wants to attempt to remain a full-time Indycar driver, that fine decision too, even with the understanding that he may have to leave Penske to do so. Either way, I see no missed opportunities.

    I expect Helio will go sports car racing next year. I’m no big fan of his, but personally, I’d rather see him still racing Indycars.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Most of my “all-time” favorite drivers began racin’ on dirt, but of the current drivers Helio is one of my favorites. Since he is currently second in points and racing well, I see no valid need for him to decide to go race sporty cars as long as he remains competitive and other rides are available. I hope to see him in a IndyCar again next season. In addition to his skill, I like his enthusiasm for the sport. Enthusiasm is contagious.

  4. Helio and his fans deserve the courtesy of a farewell season in IndyCar.

  5. I think the issue for Helio trying to stay in IndyCar past 2017 (if he wants to do such a thing) might be that I’m guessing that Roger might have sold Honda/Acura (plus whatever other sponsors) on the sports car deal by saying, in part, “our two drivers who are going to anchor the two driving squads bring five combined Indy 500 wins and 38 combined IndyCar wins. And one of them is a proven spectacular personality with sponsor and fan interaction. So, how much would you like to cut that check for?”

  6. Brian McKay Says:

    I surmise that if Castroneves brings to Mr. Penske four million dollars from Brazilian or American sponsors, he may resume racing an IndyCar full-season in 2018.
    Otherwise, *assuming* that Penske Championship Racing needs to slim down to three cars and shift one driver and crew to the Acura camp, Castroneves can reciprocate Mr. Penske’s generosity and loyalty by accepting plenty of pay to race a sports car and race an IndyCar at I.M.S.

  7. Helio’s absence will hurt IndyCar more than Dale, Jr.’s will hurt
    NASCAR because IndyCar has less room for reductions in TV
    exposure and money.

  8. I am torn, I think it’s time to go for Helio and Kanaan, I was never a huge fan of Helio anyway. But then again, I am also already tired of Spencer Pigot rumors so idk if I want the old guard to go away or not. I think Penske needs to cut down though and focus on the 3 teams.

    With Andretti possibly going to Chevy, could this be what pushes Kanaan out and Rossi in this year as well?

    • “Spencer Pigot rumors”? This is a thing that I did not know was a thing. Although he’s had 3-4 outstanding dives this year, until the car or team let him down (plus that unforced spin at Barber, where he admitted that he was pushing too hard), so I’d love it if he were a candidate for multiple drives for next year. Anyway, what have you heard?

  9. A little off topic, but wanted to say this. I know some folks may think this guy’s enthusiasm is show. I met him once in Vegas on my honeymoon, and a second time in the paddock at Belle Isle last year. Both times he was equally positive and outgoing…..and no television cameras or microphones in sight. All I know is I will miss the hell outta this guy when he’s no longer in the series.

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