LEXINGTON, Ohio — Drivers typically don’t care for surprises in their race day routine, but this morning provided an undeniably sentimental moment as four previously missing racing helmets were returned to their owners.
Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher had just emerged from today’s drivers’ meeting for The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Jaws dropped and eyes widened as the helmets were uncovered.
“Oh my God,” Castroneves said of his 2001 Team Penske helmet. “Wow!”
“A blast from the past,” Hunter-Reay said of the Rahal Letterman Racing helmet he wore for his 2007 Verizon IndyCar Series debut, ironically at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “This makes me feel old. Thank you.”
The helmets, as well as ones belonging to the late Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, were stolen in 2008 from an INDYCAR fan experience trailer parked in Speedway, Ind. All six were recently returned to INDYCAR, much to the surprise of their owners.
“Helmets are important to any driver,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s a piece of your career and a lot of memories come with it. This is a pretty important helmet.
“I kind of wrote it off. It’s nice to have it back.”
Fisher’s white helmet was also important — it was covered with fan signatures and worn in her series comeback race in 2006.
“I never thought I would see it again,” she said.
Fisher, who retired from racing in 2010 and now drives the pace car at Verizon IndyCar Series events, rotated the helmet in her hands and scanned the scribbles.
“I see so many signatures on here of people that I recognize and fans that were welcoming me back,” she said. “I remember the line for (people waiting to sign) this helmet. It was my comeback helmet, my first race back after having driven some stock cars for Richard Childress. Dennis Reinbold put me back in an Indy car in 2006.
“It was such a quick turnaround; I didn’t have time to paint a helmet. My husband now, Andy (O’Gara), had this great idea to take my helmet to the autograph session and have the fans sign it so that it would kind of be painted.”
At the time of the theft, Fisher said, “I was devastated. It meant so much to me.”
Fisher and her husband opened Speedway Indoor Karting in April. The recovered helmet will end up in a display case there.
“It will be front and center in the (karting facility) case,” she said, “so I can share it with everyone who was a part of it.”
Carpenter, now the series’ only owner/driver, wore his recovered helmet for Vision Racing in 2007.
“It’s nice we have all the INDYCAR tech stickers or otherwise I probably wouldn’t remember what year it was from anyway,” he said. “I had forgotten that it was stolen. I remember giving it to put on that trailer.
“It’s cool to have it back. I’ll have to look at some pictures to try to figure out where exactly I wore this one.”
Hunter-Reay suggested a helmet swap, but Castroneves declined. He had another idea. As he walked away, Castroneves handed the helmet to an unsuspecting Vince Kremer, now the vice president of operations at INDYCAR who was Bettenhausen Motorsports’ crew chief when Castroneves was an Indy car rookie in 1998.
“This one’s for you,” Castroneves said to Kremer, who was visibly stunned and emotional.
“He walked up and nailed me in the stomach with it,” said Kremer.
As their bond developed back in 1998, Castroneves promised Kremer, “You’re going to get one of my helmets.” Each year since, Kremer enjoyed teasing the Brazilian with a reminder.
“We’ve had a great relationship for a long time,” Kremer said. “Every year or so, I would tell him, ‘You owe me a helmet.’ Once a year, I’d come up and poke him in the ribs and say, ‘Where’s my helmet?’”
The Castroneves contribution to Kremer’s “man cave” has a place reserved next to a helmet worn by two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi. Kremer had gone so far as to take a picture of the empty spot in the past and show it to Castroneves with the message, “This hole is for yours.” All that remains is for Castroneves to sign today’s gift.
“He just totally shocked me and blew me away,” Kremer said.