Gil de Ferran Helio Castroneves

They were two peas from the same Brazilian pod, yet opposites in so many ways.

Helio Castroneves has long been known as playful and glib while Gil de Ferran was considered studious and dry to the point of being awkward at times. But Castroneves said their personalities often were misconstrued.

For example, it was the easygoing de Ferran who encouraged Castroneves not to take racing so seriously and stressed the importance of a work/life balance. Castroneves also concedes de Ferran was better at making friends and then enriching them.

“I was the one people thought was being funny,” Castroneves said this week of his friend who died Dec. 29 following a heart attack in South Florida. “Gil often was trying to be funny, but it was not working for him, which turned out to be really funny!

“With the way he was, he captivated all of us.”

De Ferran, 56, was indeed special. In addition to being sneaky funny, he was smart beyond his years, the son of a Ford engineer who himself was like an engineer driving a race car at the sport’s highest level. A two-time INDYCAR SERIES champion and the winner of the 2003 Indianapolis 500, the French-born Brazilian retired from driving at age 35 to pursue motorsports leadership. He owned race-winning De Ferran Motorsports and served in management roles with McLaren Racing and its F1 and NTT INDYCAR SERIES programs.

Castroneves said de Ferran was everything he could have asked for in a mentor and friend, and their relationship grew from joining Team Penske for the start of the 2000 CART season.

At the time, Castroneves was 25 years old and knew he had much to learn about driving for Roger Penske. For starters, Castroneves was taking the seat intended for Greg Moore, the popular Canadian who lost his life in an accident at California Speedway at the end of the 1999 season. Castroneves also joined the team knowing de Ferran, a series race winner with two teams, needed to be the leader.

“He was the smart one,” Castroneves said. “I quickly realized that what he said (about car setup) is what I wanted on my car.”

In their fifth race at Team Penske, de Ferran drove to victory at Nazareth Speedway, ending the team’s 55-race winless streak and earning its 100th career triumph. Three weeks later in Detroit, Castroneves won the first series race of his career, a feat which prompted his first fence climb. Almost symbolically, they climbed the fence together at Indianapolis Motor Speedway three years later after de Ferran won the “500.”

Castroneves and de Ferran each won one of their 1-2 finishes at Indy. De Ferran had chased Castroneves to the checkered flags in 2001.

In addition to often celebrating together, traveling the circuit as teammates gave them many opportunities to grow closer. It was de Ferran who encouraged Castroneves to move to Fort Lauderdale in 2010. They spent 11 years living within walking distance of one another’s homes and until recently lived on the same street. In meticulous de Ferran fashion, he designed his home, a 10,000-square-foot masterpiece of architecture.

Castroneves said de Ferran was his closest friend this side of Tony Kanaan, whom he began racing with as a boy. In many respects, Castroneves saw de Ferran, who was seven and a half years older, as the big brother he never had.

De Ferran often referred to Castroneves as one would a little brother.

“We talked almost every day, and it was more about life than racing,” Castroneves said. “He gave me some of the best life advice anyone has ever given me. I met so many friends through him. It’s been super cool having him in my life.

“My wife (Adriana) and Angela (de Ferran’s wife) became so well connected because Gil had always been my friend, and Luke (their son) worked out with me for a long time. Angela, Anna (their daughter) and Luke are so much a part of my family.”

Castroneves acknowledged how painful the past few days have been, but the time he spent with the de Ferrans at their home on New Year’s Eve was helpful. They shared stories of the good times – many featuring de Ferran’s silly side – and it was therapeutic.

Castroneves said he also drew comfort from the fact de Ferran died moments after driving a race car with Luke, his closest buddy. De Ferran was wearing the racing boots he used to win the last professional race of his career.

“That’s so perfect, so Gil,” Castroneves said. “On his last day he was doing what he loved with the son he loved so much. That’s the way any of us would want it to be when it’s our time.”