Helio Castroneves

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves earned Phoenix Raceway’s “Speed King” moniker and a real crown last year when he won the Phoenix Grand Prix’s pole position by officially setting the track record on the historic 1.022-mile oval with a stunning lap of 192.631 mph and two-lap average of 192.324.  

But today, the Brazilian broke new ground. Literally.

Castroneves traded his No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet for a different kind of machine prior to the final day of the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series open test – an excavator.

Helio CastronevesThe track’s 2016 Verizon P1 Award winner was asked to officially break ground for the “Phoenix Raceway Project powered by DC Solar,” a $178 million modernization for the track that hosts the Verizon IndyCar Series race, with a variety of enhanced amenities for fans, teams, sponsors and other stakeholders.

Castroneves joined Bryan Sperber, the Phoenix Raceway president, and Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, as well as other dignitaries including 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva, 1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Lyn St. James and former Indy car driver and team owner Dick Simon, for the groundbreaking ceremony outside Turn 2.

The Team Penske driver took controls of the excavator to do the honors of digging up the first shovelful of dirt.

“That was something,” said Castroneves. “It was the first time I was in one of those machines. Normally I’m told not to break things. This is the first time they are telling me to actually break things.”

Being asked to play such a big role in the project was especially poignant for Castroneves, who won at Phoenix in 2002 from the pole position and has fond memories of the track over the past 20 years.

“My very first-ever experience ever on an oval was here at Phoenix in 1996 with Steve Horne and Tasman Motorsports in Indy Lights, so this place is special to me,” Castroneves said. “That was a long time ago and I’ve been coming now for so many years since then. I’ve seen this area really grow, so being part of this project and being the one to help them break ground was quite an honor, to be honest.”

Frye was honored, too, that members of INDYCAR played a big role in the ceremony, making it part of the track’s Prix View day that allowed fans to attend track action and the groundbreaking free of charge.

“We’re certainly very proud to be part of it,” Frye said. “We’re very proud to be here and to be back here. It’s spectacular what they are doing to this facility. It’s already a great facility, a great setting, great area and great history. Now it’s going to have spectacular amenities, great for the fans, so it’s a really great time for us to be back.”

When it was finally time for Castroneves to make his way back to the paddock to prepare for more testing in his Indy car ahead of the April 29 Phoenix Grand Prix, he quipped, “I could do some great damage to my competitors with this machine. I wouldn’t be fast but I don’t think anyone else would finish except me.”

That elicited a big laugh from fans and Sperber, who was complimentary of Castroneves’ skills in any machinery.

“You put him in the cockpit of anything and I’m going to bet on Helio,” Sperber said. “He did a great job for someone who has never operated an excavator like that. You wouldn’t have known that he didn’t have 10 years of experience operating that. He cut into that surface like a champ. It’s been a long time coming and we’re really excited about getting this project rolling.”

The projected date of completion for the renovation, which includes moving the track’s start/finish line to Turn 2, is November 2018.