Standing along the pit wall on a sun-splashed Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Helio Castroneves is back to being a bubbly Brazilian who laughs as he speaks.
Confessions are good for the soul of a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
He’s been dutifully driving sports cars this season for team owner Roger Penske, but can’t hide his emotions when describing how much he’s missed being behind the wheel of a Verizon IndyCar Series machine. Castroneves was understandably excited after climbing out of his shiny, yellow No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet, the first time he’s been in the new redesigned car on an oval.
“It’s like when you went to a new house, and when you go back to INDYCAR, it’s, ‘Hey, I love this house, the smell, the areas,’” he said, amid a series of chuckles.
Castroneves offered another analogy about the chance to race in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on Saturday, May 12, then the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 27.
“It’s like you’re playing with your old toy that I miss so bad,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of like old (and) new, the Shell Pennzoil machine. As you can see, everybody won’t be able to miss (the car) because it’s so yellow and bright. It’s really great to be back in INDYCAR. Twenty years I’ve been doing it, so the details, I’m like, ‘Hey, I remember this.’”
The can’t-miss paint scheme or similar Pennzoil livery has been to the Indy 500's Victory Lane three times – in 1980 with Johnny Rutherford and again in 1984 and 1988 with Rick Mears, a long-time Team Penske driving coach.
“You can’t take your eyes off it, even if you wanted to,” Castroneves said. “You’ve got to put on sunglasses.”
Castroneves, who turns 43 on May 10, was the picture of contentment as he basked in the glow of that car. He wants nothing more than to join Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as a four-time Indy 500 winner. He came so close again last year, finishing second in a duel with Takuma Sato, the third time Castroneves has been a runner-up in this prestigious race. His wins came in 2001, ’02 and ’09, so the search for win No. 4 has been elusive thus far.
Castroneves mentioned the need to get up to speed in learning the nuances of the new car, like how many turns does that front wing need to make the handling ideal. This car has less downforce, which means the back end will tend to get loose more easily.
He’ll compare notes with teammates Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, all series champions seeking their first Indy 500 victory. One of the more ideal aspects about this part-time "two-off" venture is, unlike his teammates who are full-season drivers, Castroneves no longer concerns himself with how a race or qualifying result will impact his points standing.
“You don’t need to be thinking about double points. You don’t need to be thinking about how many points you get in qualifying,” he said. “Now, you just focus 100 percent on racing performance and hope to be there at the end.”
His goal for Monday was quite simple: It's not about turning the quickest lap, but rather trying to get comfortable as quickly as possible. Castroneves wound up 10th on the speed chart with a best lap of 224.673 mph.
“It’s more like what the car can do,” he said, “and how far can we go without being scared.”
There was a time when he was a bit scared to admit that his slick black hair had a few gray stands. Not this day. He was giddy when the subject was broached.
“Still good?” he asked, running a hand over his head.
So what of the slightly salt-and-pepper look?
“I’m running out of Just For Men,” he said of the hair coloring product.
On this fine day, Castroneves chuckled once more when offering the obvious reassurance that driving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, indeed, never gets old.
“It’s like going back in time,” he said, “but don’t let the pepper fool you.”