AUSTIN, Texas — Helio Castroneves was welcomed back to the INDYCAR side of Team Penske, as anticipated, with wisecracks.
Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – the three full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers for Roger Penske – couldn’t resist teasing their part-time teammate on Tuesday after the first of four test sessions for INDYCAR Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas. An amused Castroneves was just happy to be back on track and amongst his compadres.
“No, he’s unnecessary,” Pagenaud said with a wry smile in Castroneves’ direction.
“It’s like my dad used to call us kids when we were young,” Power said, “‘Aw, you’re just a pest, get out of here.’”
“It’s nice. It’s like when your grandparents come to visit,” Newgarden said of the 43-year-old Brazilian.
Castroneves grinned and nodded. Some things never change, he thought, even after a year away racing sports cars for Team Penske
“The feeling is mutual,” Castroneves said with a chuckle.
For but a moment, racing is routine again for Castroneves, whose name became synonymous with Indy car racing through 30 career victories in two decades, most notably three Indianapolis 500 triumphs.
Every finely combed black hair is in place. He glows in his yellow Pennzoil racing suit. The gregarious guy who never hides his emotions laughs heartily and gets a kick out of each interaction with the kind of infectious enthusiasm that has made him such a fan favorite.
“Twenty years doesn’t go just like in one year because I was away,” Castroneves said.
But, alas, this is just a test. He’s here to offer input to his teammates. He won’t be racing when the NTT IndyCar Series returns to COTA for the INDYCAR Classic on March 24.
Lest he or anyone forget, the Team Penske plan is for Castroneves to return just like last year for two May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course and the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on the 2.5-mile oval.
“I hope he comes back full time,” said Power, the defending Indy 500 winner. “I’m throwing that out there.”
Judging by the tone of his voice, during INDYCAR Media Day at a nearby hotel on Monday and at Tuesday’s media availability with teammates, Castroneves would love to be back for the duration. But because he’s not, that means making the most of whatever opportunity he’s given — and he’s a pro’s pro when it comes to accentuating the positive.
“If the sunshine’s not out there,” Castroneves said of his bright yellow attire, “the sunshine is in here.”
Teammates dined together Monday night and shared stories, just like old times. Power wanted to divulge what was discussed but insisted there wasn't enough time.
Pagenaud, also one of the more personable drivers, appreciates what Castroneves brings to the team.
“I love having him around,” Pagenaud said. “The biggest thing is his joy. It’s great to have someone with such joy of life. He’s still a kid when he gets in the race car. It’s great to see and it’s inspiring.”
The juices started flowing when Castroneves prepared for the test in a simulator. That’s when he was also quickly reminded of where he’s been mostly racing in the last year.
“This is not my seat,” he said, comparing the Indy car setup to that of the Acura sports car he races most of the time now in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “It’s down (in the cockpit) too much.”
Driving the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet at COTA, Castroneves showed no rust. He ranked third out of 25 drivers on the combined speed chart Tuesday following the first of two days of testing with a lap of 1 minute, 47.6949 seconds (113.989 mph) in the second session.
“Oh, just being back out there, it’s fantastic,” said Castroneves, who had never before driven on COTA's 20-turn, 3.41-mile layout in the rolling hills of Texas. “By the end of the day, it will be just like riding a bicycle.”
Last season in IMSA, Castroneves won once and finished seventh in the points. When he returned to IMS in May, he finished sixth in the INDYCAR Grand Prix and ran strong in the Indianapolis 500 before inexplicably spinning and crashing out in 27th place.
“I still don’t know what happened with the accident last year. We’re still very confused,” said Castroneves, one of several veteran drivers to lose control and crash in extremely hot and slick conditions.
There’s no confusion about Castroneves’ determined pursuit to join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser in that rarefied, legendary air as a four-time Indy 500 winner. Castroneves has come so close, finishing second in 2014 and 2017.
He’s wearing the most recent of his Indy 500 winner’s rings these days. That’s advice he got from Mears, who contends the most recent accomplishment is the most special.
But, again, May is farther down the racing road. For now, it’s COTA. Stick to the routine, enjoy every last minute of it. Even if it means taking more jabs from his teammates, including Power, who inferred that Castroneves veers off course more than most.
“Helio has spent more time in the sand than David Hasselhoff,” Power said, referring to the “Baywatch” series star.
The joke is lost on Castroneves, who needs to have who Hasselhoff is explained, then runs a hand over his slick hair to signify it went right over his head.
“Will says a lot of things,” Castroneves said. “He wishes I won’t come back full time, otherwise I’ll kick his butt.”
Wednesday’s final day of Spring Training calls for an Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires session from 9-10:45 a.m. ET, followed by NTT IndyCar Series sessions from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-6 p.m. Live timing and scoring will be available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.