The NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to Long Beach, California, this week for the third race of the season. For Helio Castroneves, it will be a return to the site of his third career start, almost 24 years to the day.
So much has changed for the Brazilian, highlighted by becoming the fourth driver in history to have won the Indianapolis 500 on four occasions. The sport’s guard has changed, too.
Whereas Castroneves began his career competing against the likes of Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, he now contends with a whole new crop of drivers, many of whom have joined the INDYCAR SERIES since Castroneves last drove full time for Team Penske in 2017.
Eight drivers competing in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach weren’t born when Castroneves made his debut on the event’s 11-turn, 1.969-mile temporary street circuit in 1998. Two of them were born after he won his first “500” in 2001.
Instead of racing against Bryan Herta, as Castroneves did as a rookie, he now finds himself challenging Herta’s son, Colton. The younger Herta, who turned 22 last week, is one of three drivers Castroneves will battle this season whose fathers were his competitors in the past. Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti are the others.
Of course, helmets and visors cover the faces of these drivers, which is part of why it hadn’t occurred to the 46-year-old Castroneves how unique his life position is.
“It’s interesting to see this,” he said of the list of drivers more than half his age. “I never put it into perspective, which is cool because after seeing and talking to them, I have the same respect (for them) that I had for the guys I first raced with – (Mauricio) Gugelmin, Bobby Rahal, Al Jr., Michael.
“I remember when I got on the podium with Michael in St. Louis in 1999, I remember thinking, ‘I’m battling with Michael Andretti!’ I don’t know if these kids are testing me that way like I was (the older guys), but it’s cool, and it’s normal.”
Obviously, Castroneves is a rare spirit. But for all his youthful exuberance, remember he will turn 47 ahead of next month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and his 359 career starts in the INDYCAR SERIES rank fourth all time behind Mario Andretti, Tony Kanaan and A.J. Foyt. Castroneves has 100 more starts than Bobby Unser and 157 more than Rick Mears.
In Castroneves’s series debut in 1998 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Rahal was the only 40-something driver in the field. He was nearly two years younger than Castroneves is now.
“No kidding?!” Castroneves said, laughing. “I remember thinking then, ‘Man, this guy is old.’ Now I know and understand.”
Castroneves said his experience as a father has been beneficial racing against these younger drivers, and he cited the incident that eliminated him from the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ most recent race, the XPEL 375 on March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Mid-race, series rookie Devlin DeFrancesco drove his car below the white line approaching Turn 3, an area of the track where the banking is dangerously reduced. DeFrancesco lost control and bumped into Graham Rahal, whose car in turn veered into Castroneves’ path. All three drivers hit the wall with significant force.
DeFrancesco apologized for the mistake while the drivers were in the infield care center, and the veterans accepted it. Castroneves said DeFrancesco’s father apologized, too.
“It was good to see that,” Castroneves said of the apologies. “Now that I am a father, I want to raise my kid in the right way, too.
“The sport needs young guys to shift to a new generation, just like my generation did with me and Tony (Kanaan) and others. These guys are going to make mistakes just like I did – and I made a lot of them, don’t get me wrong. Still do, to be honest. They will learn.
“I just hope they learn as much as I did from those older guys I raced with. One day they’re going to be in my position and if they love the sport as I do, they will have driven for a long time, too.”
Castroneves will be one seven drivers in Sunday’s 85-lap race to have won an INDYCAR SERIES race on the streets of Long Beach; he won there in 2001. Will Power (twice), Alexander Rossi (twice), Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Colton Herta (last year) are others. NBC’s broadcast is set to begin at 3 p.m. (ET).