One smooth operator

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:42 AM ET

If you told A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Bill Vukovich, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock or Al Unser Jr. that after they won their second Indy 500 they could become a heck of a lot more famous by winning a made-for-television dancing competition, can you imagine their reaction?

It happened to Helio Castroneves.

The Brazilian won the Indy 500 back-to-back in 2001 and 2002. That was big.

But then he won the hit ABC show Dancing With The Stars last year. That was massive. He was featured in People, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, etc., and was on the cover of ESPN Magazine in his dancing duds, he was a guest on many of the top national TV talk shows, was invited to several red carpet events and was part of a national tour of celebrities and dancers.

He had become an international entertainment superstar, a phenomenon being experienced now by two-time figure skating world champion and Olympic gold medal winner Kristi Yamaguchi (she trained in Edmonton) who became his successor and began her reign by being invited to give Castroneves (and 32 others) the green flag to start this year's Indy 500.

Suddenly the two biggest stars in IndyCar were Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition model Danica Patrick, who hadn't won a race until this year, and that guy from Dancing With The Stars.

In 2002 and 2003, Castroneves became the first driver to win the Indy 500 two years in a row since Al Unser won in 1970 and 1971 and didn't get anywhere near the attention.

"It's interesting to be in this spot because of dancing. I always thought it would be because of racing," said the 33-year-old Castroneves in Indianapolis prior to this year's 500.

This is a guy who isn't exactly shy. When he won the Indy, he climbed the fence. The racing questions and the dancing questions have started to run together.

"Obviously on Dancing I was myself, as everybody knows me. I'm just having fun. And it's the same here, having fun and racing. Hopefully those new fans we achieve, we can bring them here now, so it's also fun," he said.

Roger Penske didn't have a problem with the whole deal. In fact, the Team Penske owner recently flew dance partners Julianne Hough and Castroneves to dance at a Penske Corp. event in Las Vegas.

"It's been fun," said Penske. "It's been good for him and good for the sport."

Penske hosted a dinner with about three dozen media members in attendance during race week in Indianapolis in which Castroneves made an appearance. But he didn't dance.

Castroneves hasn't won behind the wheel since he won wheeling Hough around the dance floor. Obviously it isn't a problem for Penske who, despite watching eight different drivers not named Castroneves win races this year, is signing him to a multi-year contract extension.

Despite not winning through his first 11 races, he sat second in series points.

The first half of the schedule he'd finished 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 5th, 2nd, 14th, 2nd and 3rd.

"I want to win a championship and I know we have the team to do it," he said.

"Sometimes people say 'Oh, you didn't win a race' and I say 'Listen, if I can win this championship without winning a race, trust me, we're going to be extremely happy,' " he said on a recent conference call.

"We know how valuable it is to win a race, so we focus not only on the championship; we focus on both. But if we don't have the opportunity because the competition is so hard, we are not just going to throw second or third or fourth place away just because we know we can't win."

If he wins a race that ends up winning him the championship, you'll really get to see him dance.


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