As this weekend for giving thanks concludes, it’s fitting for INDYCAR to express gratitude to Helio Castroneves, one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time, as he shifts gears in 2018 to drive sports cars full time for Team Penske.
The 42-year-old Brazilian will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May to compete in both Verizon IndyCar Series races – in the familiar No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet for the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12 and 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 27 – as he chases immortality by once again seeking to become just the fourth driver to win the Indy 500 four times.
Yet there’s been much more to the illustrious 20-year Indy car career than just his three Indy wins. Castroneves has driven in 344 races, third all time and trailing only Mario Andretti (407) and A.J. Foyt (369).
Castroneves’ 30 career wins rank 12th all time, his 41 second-place finishes are second most and his 141 top-five finishes are tied for third most in Indy car history with Al Unser Jr. and Scott Dixon. With 50 career pole positions, Castroneves is tied for third all time with Will Power.
The model of consistency, Castroneves owns two of the 10 best consecutive race starts streaks – 193 straight races from 1998-2008 and 151 from 2009 through the end of the 2017 season. The latter streak will end with the 2018 season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.
Longtime Team Penske team manager Jon Bouslog recently admitted he’s not sure what it will be like not to see Castroneves strapping into a car on the prerace grid at St. Pete.
“It hasn’t really sunk in to me yet,” Bouslog told the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. “It’s going to be difficult because he is such a great personality and a great guy. He is such a sparkplug for the team.
“I wish everybody could know Helio,” Bouslog continued. “I think everybody does know Helio in that he is the guy on TV. He is always that way. A lot of people say it’s an act, but Helio Castroneves is the same guy on TV or at a meet-and-greet or in the race car all the time. He will be missed.”
Team owner Roger Penske said he began discussing the move to sports cars with Castroneves in early 2016, as Team Penske was putting together its plan to launch the Acura DPi program that will compete in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Official announcement of Castroneves’ addition to the Acura team – where he will team with two-time Indy 500 winner and 1999 Indy car champion Juan Pablo Montoya, among others – came last month.
“I think we’ve placed him in a very good position and I feel that I’ve certainly given him the chances that he needed,” said Penske, who signed Castroneves to drive Indy cars beginning in 2000. “He’s produced the results and continues to, and that’s why we’re looking at this as a future opportunity for both of us.
“This gives Helio a longer future in his racing career.”
Castroneves said his boss laid out the plan and left the decision to him. The opportunity to bid for a fourth Indy 500 win in a perfectly prepared Penske entry was a key part of the equation.
“Roger gave me an option,” Castroneves recalled of the conversation. “‘What (do) you want to do? We can continue moving forward, whatever you want to do.’ I felt with the family that I created inside the team with the professionalism, just for me, it’s my career, it’s building to this.
“Driving is my passion, it’s in my blood, and if this can continue moving forward and prolong my career, I’m all up for it.”
Maybe so, but without Castroneves’ never-ending enthusiasm and effervescent smile at races outside of Indianapolis, it will leave a void noticed by fans, members of the INDYCAR paddock and fellow competitors alike.
“It’s going to be great to have him back at Indy and hopefully he will be around for many years to come,” team manager Bouslog said. “You never know what is going to happen. I think there will be a little bit of a hole in the world when he doesn’t show up. They will miss him.”
With that in mind, and as Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close, let’s give thanks to all of the thrills, smiles and joy Helio Castroneves has delivered for 20 seasons. And for the excitement to come.