Helio Castroneves on track Indianapolis open test

INDIANAPOLIS – As rain pelted concrete in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley, racing team members were understandably bored playing a waiting game during Wednesday’s delayed NTT IndyCar Series open test.

One happy face stood out amid the puddles.

Helio Castroneves was back in the Team Penske garage, the bubbly Brazilian holding court as the center of attention during lunch with his exuberant hand gestures, facial expressions and loud tone of voice interrupted only by sudden bursts of laughter.

“Aw man, this place, I would call it the Disneyland of racing,” Castroneves said. “It’s the perfect place for us.”

Helio Castroneves pit stand IndianapolisIt’s always the ideal locale for the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who never masks his enthusiasm upon returning each year. This was just a test, but it might as well be May already. It’s the second consecutive year he’s not a full-time series regular, this being a deviation from driving a Team Penske sports car the rest of the season, so Castroneves sounded even more pumped up at his old stomping grounds.

Longtime spotter and Team Penske driving coach Rick Mears, one of the Indy 500 four-time winners Castroneves desperately aspires to join in racing lore, couldn’t resist teasing the driver in the middle of those showers.

“It’s pretty obvious you can see he lights up for this place,” Mears said, giving a playful nudge to Castroneves, decked out in his bright yellow Pennzoil racing suit. “Each year, he gets the car a little brighter because he knows my eyes are going the other way.”

Mears has always been such a respected mentor. Castroneves heeds almost all advice from the legend — be it the mental approach to racing, the strategic importance of developing a car throughout the race to get it just right for the final stint or wearing the most recent winner’s ring because it should be appreciated as the most special.

But when Mears speaks of how he always tried to treat Indy as “just another race,” Castroneves starts to smile and that head with the finely combed black hair starts to shake sideways. At 43, Castroneves is admittedly more sentimental. Trying to stick to that Mears mantra is asking a lot.

“I follow all the directions, but I’ve still got my personality,” he said. “I feel this place feeds me a great vibe and a great energy. Every time you go to a place where you do well, I’m like, ‘Aw man, I can’t wait to be there!’ I’m saying that about Indy and other tracks as well. I’m happy this place accepted me, not only Indianapolis but the fans as well.”

Team Penske President Tim Cindric has been around Castroneves from the beginning. He called all three of the Indianapolis 500 wins in 2001, 2002 and 2009. He’s used to seeing the driver light up each May with a passion for IMS that can’t be compared to anywhere else.

“He’s part of Indianapolis,” Cindric said. “He knows that. He always looks forward to coming back here. He’s had great days here and he’s had some that weren’t so great. The main thing is he appreciates what this place can be and is, especially for him and his career.”

Teammate Will Power has been basking in the glow of being the defending Indy 500 winner, but nobody beamed more this day than Castroneves.

“After you win this race, you’re forever an Indy 500 winner,” Cindric said. “That’s how you’re introduced. Helio has been introduced that way now for 18 years. There’s your name and then there’s that part of it that comes with your name.”

Although he’s celebrated 30 Indy car wins in two decades, Castroneves said he still has butterflies in his stomach when stepping back into the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet. Driving a race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway never gets old.

“First of all, I appreciate it, but at the same time respect it because it is intimidating,” he said. “For me coming back, having this opportunity again, just to be here, my mind blows away.”

Although he’ll get a tune-up with the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course May 11, Castroneves can’t be blamed for having a one-track mind when it comes to big-picture perspective. He repeats his hope that maybe, just maybe, this is the year he joins Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as a four-time winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He refers to the trio ahead of him as “gods.”

Castroneves gets so worked up at times, he repeats himself. Lately, he’s been asking himself the same question again and again and again.

“Every time you come back here, it’s always like, ‘Is it May yet?’” he said. “I always keep saying that. Is it May yet? No, it’s not, but it feels like May.”

INDYCAR Grand Prix practice and qualifying takes place Friday, May 10. The race airs live at 3 p.m. ET Saturday, May 11 on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Indianapolis 500 practice begins Tuesday, May 14 and runs through Friday, May 17. Qualifying to set the 33-car field occurs Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19. The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, May 26.

Tickets for all May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are available at IMS.com.