INDIANAPOLIS — When Mary Hulman George gives the “drivers, start your engines” command on Sunday, Helio Castroneves will begin his personal quest for a place among the greatest IndyCar drivers in history.
The quintessentially happy Brazilian had already won the hearts of North American motor-racing fans when, on winning his first Indianapolis 500 in 2001, he climbed the fence at the start-finish line — earning him the nickname “Spiderman.”
Castroneves further cemented that relationship when he danced his way to pop-star fame by winning the Dancing With The Stars competition with American sweetheart Julianne Hough in 2007.
On Sunday, with three Borg-Warner trophies already on his mantle, Castroneves will seek to match A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500.
It comes almost exactly a year after Castroneves faced a five-year jail term when he was charged with avoiding U.S. income tax on some $5.5 million in earnings.
But the jury in Miami wasn’t buying that Castroneves sought to cheat Uncle Sam and found him innocent of all charges.
The native of Ribeirao Preto, Brazil, holds no hard feelings on the case. In fact upon hearing the verdict he thanked his adopted country and its judicial system for its fairness.
Fast forward to this season and we find Castroneves on cusp of becoming the first non-American-born driver to join the ultra-exclusive four-win club at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He says he is awed at the prospect.
“When you guys talk about Rick, A.J., and Al, they’re the gods of racing, the legends,” he said. “I’m so honoured to have this opportunity that I’m facing right now. If I’ll be able to accomplish what I want, it will be a dream come true.”
Castroneves said that he thinks he’s ready to make that leap into the history books with the No. 3 Penkse Racing team behind him.
“Certainly Team Penske and I, we’re going to do our best to see if we can accomplish that goal,” he said.
Castroneves also added that at age 35, there is still plenty of time to go for four again next year or even the year after that. He said he doesn’t want to lose focus on the here and now and that is to make it through Sunday.
“I’m trying to focus on the race, go out there and win the race,” he said. “Yes, Indianapolis is the most important one. Again, if it’s not that this time, there’s going to be a next race.”
Castroneves said that he thinks of the Indy 500 the way that golfers think of the Masters. In fact, he said, he was thinking of Phil Mickelson’s win this season at Augusta National when going through the process of getting ready for Sunday’s race.
“I was watching the Masters this year,” he said. “Phil Mickelson, when he won, he said people were asking why he played so well. He said, ‘This is the Masters, I feel comfortable playing here, seems to bring the best out of me.’
“We’re talking about the Indianapolis 500. This is the driver’s version of the Masters; you are competing against the best drivers in the world when they’re competing here.”
Castroneves said that the 2.5-mile oval is like the Holy Grail of racing.
“This place does bring the best out of me,” he said. “It’s a challenging place, very difficult place. Every time I come over here, it’s a new beginning.
“I do feel comfortable. I like to go to the limit.
“This (race) is the greatest thing. I mean it’s awesome to accomplish.”
To help ensure that he can keep his emotions in check during the race, team owner Roger Penske hired Mears several seasons ago to not only coach Castroneves but also to spot for him during the race.
Mears says that winning the fourth 500 will be hard, but that all of his wins were hard and he expects the same for Castroneves.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first, second, third or fourth — they’re all difficult,” Mears said. “One thing, myself and Helio, too, we’ve always approached this race as a new day, a new race, almost the first time. You don’t really think about which one it is. We’re here to try to win the race.
“In this business, it’s about being flexible. You have to be ready for change at all times.”
Mears, who won his Indy 500s in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1990, said Castroneves will have to beat more than just 32 other drivers; he’ll have to beat the elements as well.
“You don’t know who is going to be strong, who your competition is, what the track conditions are going to be like. You got to do what’s necessary to get yourself in a position.
“The team must make all the right calls, the right decisions in the pits. When I won the fourth one, to be anywhere near compared to A.J. and Al, two of my heroes, was just a great honour.”
Mears said if there is a single thread that connects him, Foyt, Unser and maybe Castroneves after Sunday, it is the desire to be the best and the commitment that it takes to make it happen.
“I think over the years as far as comparing all of us, I think desire, the love of what we do, sitting in that race car, competing, the competition, I think that love of what we do creates the desire, and the desire creates the results,” he said.
“Obviously, one of the most important things is all of us being fortunate enough to have the right equipment, the right people behind us supporting us; to give us the tools to be able to accomplish those things. And then the final thing I think is having a lot of lady luck on your side.”
Castroneves said he would add one more thing that he has that will help him get to that next level and closer to immortality, and that is having Mears on his team.
“I have Rick, maybe that’s the secret, you know,” he said. “He certainly knows a lot about this place. Basically he’s there to make sure that I don’t have any issues, stay out of trouble, especially when somebody comes from behind, taking chances, unnecessary chances.
“In fact, he has saved me many, many times over here so that I could end up in a good situation.
“Sometimes I do ask him, ‘Hey, Rick, what do I do? I don’t know what to do anymore.’
“So I’m glad to have Rick on my side, being my spotter. Always when you have someone with such an incredible experience, obviously he’s the one who has the secret to winning here, and I always listen, I’m always up for innovation or up for learning because this place is all about that. It’s all about taking every lap by lap and learning every time.”
By 4:30 or so Sunday afternoon, Castroneves will find out if he has learned enough to talk to Mears, Foyt and Unser as equals.