Brazilian Indy car driver Helio Castroneves has moved to the top of the Indy Racing League standings. He took the lead by winning Sunday's Firestone Indy 225 in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The charismatic Brazilian has no plan to step down any time soon.
Helio Castroneves carries himself with the confidence that comes from winning the premier U.S. auto race, the Indianapolis 500, twice. His electric smile and self-assured manner give off the aura of a champion, a characteristic he seems to take in stride. But it is an aura he has had to build over years of experience.
Born in Sao Paulo, Castroneves began racing go-karts in 1987. He won the Brazilian National Go-Kart series in 1989 and soon moved to the South American Formula Three race car series. There he won four times and had two other podium (top three) finishes. Castroneves told VOA sports that he knew early on that he wanted to be a race car driver.
"I started at 11 years old," he said. "Other drivers started at 10 or maybe 14. But from there on you kept doing the same thing. You know, just kept shooting to see, 'what am I going to be? a basketball player? a baseball player? No I want to be a race car driver.' And I guess with that when you reach around 17, 18, or 20 years old you do have enough experience and I guess that's why the performance is a little bit better."
By the mid-1990s, Castroneves was racing for Paul Stewart Racing in the Brazilian Formula Three Championship. He finished in the top two six times, and was rated the "most exciting new driver" in the series.
He finished second in the Indy Lights Series in 1997 for Tasman Motors, just four points behind countryman Tony Kanaan. Castroneves would go on in 1998 to finish second to Kanaan for rookie of the year honors with Bettenhausen Motorsports. He captured the first Championship Auto Racing Teams pole position of his career in 1999 in Milwaukee.
But it was at the so-called "Brickyard", the Indianapolis 500 race, that Helio Castroneves would gain the attention of worldwide racing fans. After joining Penske racing with countryman Gil de Ferran, Castroneves piloted his red and white Honda-powered Reynard to the checkered flag at Indy 500 in 2000. It was Penske racing team's 11th Indy 500 win.
The Brazilian captured the coveted Indy 500 title again the next year, but in a controversial win over Canada's Paul Tracy. Tracy's team said its driver had passed Castroneves on the 199th lap, but the IRL turned down the appeal. Castroneves was not able to make it a record three in a row when he lost to teammate and countryman Gil de Ferran this year at Indy.
"Yeah, I could not get as close as possible," he said. "It was too close. But at least we kept it in the family, team Penske winning its third in a row. But again, some we win and some we lose."
Team Penske now runs Toyota engines in its cars, a change from the Honda Engines it used in 2002. Castroneves has been able to lead the Japanese manufacturer to its first ever Indy Racing League title, by giving the engine-maker an insurmountable lead over Honda with three races remaining.
Next year, Castoneves will be driving next to a new teammate. Brazilian Gil de Ferran has decided to retire after this season. American Sam Hornisch, who finished second to Castroneves at Nazareth, will drive alongside the Brazilian next season.
But what about Castroneves making the jump to Formula One? The Brazilian says that while it is a dream to drive the best cars in the world, right now his job is with Team Penske.
"I do not know. It depends on the opportunity. Right now I am on a fantastic team with fantastic people," he said. "I am being recognized in my career. So, yes I do have a dream to one day go there, but if I do not have the opportunity to go, why throw everything away that I have achieved just to be there."
Castroneves currently leads the Indy Racing League standings, with teammate Gil de Ferran second, 25 points back, and countryman Tony Kanaan in third place. Future teammate Sam Hornisch of the United States is 71 points back. But there are three races left in the season, so Helio Castroneves says he will enjoy his place at the top for the time being, adding that racing is like the stock market, sometimes it is up, and sometimes it is down.
The next Indy car race is Sept. 7 at Chicago