He never hoisted the Astor Cup, but to his peers, Helio Castroneves is still regarded as a champion.
An Indy car career that spans 20 years and 30 victories, including three Indianapolis 500 wins, places Castroneves in elite company – even though he never won a season championship. Only three times since 2001 has Team Penske’s longest-tenured driver finished outside the top five in the standings. Four times, he was runner-up to the champion (2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014).
Team Penske announced Wednesday that Castroneves will shift gears and move to its new sports car team in 2018. The 42-year-old Brazilian will still drive in the two Verizon IndyCar Series races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May – the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Scott Dixon has raced against Castroneves in Indy cars for 17 years. The Chip Ganassi Racing ace hasn’t always agreed with Castroneves’ tactics, but there is nonetheless a lasting respect between them. Two of Dixon’s four Verizon IndyCar Series championships (2008, 2013) came with Castroneves finishing as the bridesmaid in the standings.
“With Helio, we’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years, but he’s a hell of a competitor,” said Dixon. “He’s always in the championship hunt. He’s won three Indianapolis 500s. I think the drive that you see from Helio, year in and year out – the guy just wants to race, doesn’t know how to sit down – it’s impressive to see.
“These are the guys that inspire you. You have to go through people like him to win championships and he is one of the toughest guys out there. It hasn’t always been fun to race him in some circumstances, but we’ve had some great battles. He’s a hell of a guy, too.
“I admire Helio through and through.”
Will Power has been Castroneves’ teammate at Team Penske since 2009. Power’s path to the 2014 championship came at the expense of late-season rough luck for Castroneves. With Castroneves out of the full-time picture, Power becomes the senior Indy car driver at Team Penske.
“I think with Helio, we have very similar oval feedback and setups,” said Power, who has two more career wins (32) than Castroneves and is tied with him for third on the all-time poles list at 50.
“(Castroneves is) someone that I lean on and my engineer leans on as far as if we want confirmation on a setup change or something,” Power added. “He and I often come to the same conclusion on ovals, for sure, so that’s something I’ve relied on from Helio during the years.
“He has an interesting driving style and braking technique, which I’ve used as well.”
The newest member of Team Penske is also the recently crowned champion of the Verizon IndyCar Series, Josef Newgarden.
Newgarden raced against Castroneves for five seasons before getting the call from Penske this year. It allowed the 26-year-old Tennessean to admire Castroneves up close.
“Helio has been an icon for Indy car racing,” Newgarden said. “He is certainly a legend in the sport and someone I’ve been fortunate to race against but also been fortunate to be teammates with.
“Specifically this year, it’s been so much fun getting to be around him in a race environment closely and learn from him. Also, (to) experience the year together, it was really a joy for me.”
Newgarden also is looking ahead to the chance to go wheel to wheel with Castroneves again in the Indy 500.
“The good news is that Helio is really not going anywhere,” he said. “He is still my teammate at Team Penske. He’s going to be there during the month of May and ready to beat everyone and try to win a fourth Indianapolis 500.
“For me, the good news is he’s not really gone yet. He’s still got many more years ahead.”
Maybe, but longtime friend and competitor Tony Kanaan admitted it won’t be the same without Castroneves on the grid at the 2018 season opener. The two began racing karts together as kids in their native Brazil and came to the United States together as Indy Lights teammates in 1996, before each wrote his own success story driving Indy cars the past 20 years.
Kanaan reflected on the irony of the situation today when it was announced he would continue as a full-season driver next season in the Verizon IndyCar Series with AJ Foyt Racing. It came a day after news broke that Castroneves would no longer be a full-time driver in the series.
“Hard to swallow, you know?” Kanaan said. “I still haven’t had a lot of time to process it because look how ironic our lives have been all the time. He announced his (move to sports cars) yesterday, I announced my extension today.
“I think we will realize (how much Castroneves is missed) when we get to the first race, and he’s not around,” Kanaan added. “Especially for me that he’s been here as long as I’ve been. We grew up together.
“It’s a big loss. It’s going to take a little time to adjust. He will definitely be missed, big time.”