Hélio Castroneves on his return to the Indy 500: “IndyCar is just part of my DNA”

by Jordan Groves

Heading into this weekend’s 2019 Indianapolis 500, one man that will be will be aiming to take what his fourth win in what is unquestionably one of the world’s most prestigious of races. Team Penske‘s Hélio Castroneves may not be taking part full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series anymore, but his passion for the sport and, in particular, the Indy 500, remains as strong as ever.

Over his seventeen-year career in the IndyCar Series, Hélio has built up a reputation of being one of the most talented drivers of the modern era. Right from the word go, Hélio announced himself as one of the best, taking his first IndyCar win in only his second race. What’s more, that win came at the 2001 Indianapolis 500 and would go on to be the first of three Indy 500 triumphs, with Castroneves returning to victory circle the following year in 2002 and then again in 2009.

Sadly, the fan-favourite Brazilian driver was transferred out of full-time IndyCar racing by his team boss, Roger Penske, after the conclusion of the 2017 season. Instead, Castroneves would enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driving an Acura Team Penske Daytona Prototype, partnering Ricky Taylor.

Despite his full-time move to IMSA, Castroneves would make a return to IndyCar for the 2018 month of May, racing his famous #3 Chevrolet in both the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500. After qualifying inside the fast nine, Hélio would remain in contention throughout the race, only to, unfortunately, crash out of the race on lap 145. However, a silver lining would soon emerge when it was shortly announced that Hélio would be returning for both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year.

His return to the Indy 500 this year allows Castroneves to continue his pursuit of a fourth victory in the famous race, a win that would see him tie for the all-time Indy 500 wins record with some of the very best drivers in IndyCar history.

In the midst of last week’s numerous practice sessions prior to qualifying, Hélio was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to The Checkered Flag‘s Jordan Groves about a range of topics, including what it would mean for him to secure his fourth Indy 500 crown, as well as the potential for him to return to full-time IndyCar racing in the future.

Credit: James Black / Courtesy of IndyCar

You’re currently preparing for what will be your nineteenth Indianapolis 500 should you qualify. In your view, what makes the Indianapolis 500 such a special race?

The history of this place is magical. Different generations have been through this place, so being part of the Indy 500 is very special.

You enter the race with the most wins of any driver in the field. With three wins to your name, you have made no secret of the fact that you want to win again to tie with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears who have four wins. Just what would it mean to you to accomplish this feat?

It would mean being part of history. Also, building a legacy and joining an exclusive club!

If you were able to get your fourth spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy this year, how soon would you start thinking about a fifth?

I would take a little more time to enjoy the #4, then we will think about what’s next.

Yourself and your Penske team-mates have shown great speed in practice so far. How confident are you feeling heading into the race?

We know we have the best equipment out there, plus these guys are doing an incredible job we are thrilled to have them around us.

At the end of the 2017 season, Roger Penske opted to move you from the team’s IndyCar program to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. You’ve stated numerous times that you would like to return to IndyCar full-time, is that still a possibility? What would it take for you to convince Roger to bring you back?

I love the sports car world and I am enjoying every minute of it with my teammates. IndyCar is just part of my DNA and everything will depend on Indy 500. Let’s just go with the flow here!

Credit: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Speaking of IMSA, you are currently sat in second place in the championship standings with your team-mate, Ricky Taylor. The Penske Acura seems much more competitive than it was last season, do you and the team have what it take the fight to Caddilac for the rest of the season?

Absolutely, as long as the BOP [balence of performance] doesn’t keep taking power away from us, we will be able to fight with them.

Having raced almost exclusively in single-seaters for over a decade leading up to your IMSA switch, what were the main challenges of moving over from IndyCar? What are the key differences between racing a Penske Chevrolet IndyCar and a Penske Acura DPi?

Well, the IndyCar is much more light in weight plus you can make the set up for yourself just the way you want. In the IMSA world, you have to compromise with the position of the car, the setup and the time you drive the car. I’m glad I have a great teammate in Ricky Taylor – what a great guy!

You are known across the globe for being one of the best IndyCar drivers of recent times. However, back in 2002, you tested with the Toyota F1 Team at Paul Ricard. How close were you to finding a spot on the Formula 1 grid?

Formula One was an incredible experience. We tested and the car fit me like a glove. I still feel that car was made for my style. However, back then and today, the political aspect plays so much of a role in that sport. I’m glad I was not part of it. It’s a shame as it could be a great partnership. I am extremely happy with my decision to stay with Team Penske.

Throughout your long career in IndyCar and now IMSA, you have raced against some of the very best drivers in the modern era of motorsport. Of everybody you have raced against, who did you respect the most? Who was your toughest rival?

Every driver has a different style and I am still learning with all of them, but Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya – they did help me be a better driver.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Will you still be racing or, perhaps, will you move into team or driver management like some of your peers?

I hope I’m still driving… that’s the best part of the sport!

The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, will take place next weekend on Sunday, May 26. Helio Castroneves will start the race from twelfth-place.

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