Helio Castroneves was in the mood to cha-cha-cha. But the yorkie-poo wanted to play.
Hours before his touring dance troupe was to perform in a now-darkened St. Pete Times Forum in January, there was Castroneves still honing the moves to a routine that had become his signature, laid the steps to mainstream celebrity, made him that race car driver that had won Dancing with the Stars.
"Jackson!'' his partner, Julianne Hough, sort-of chided her pet after it burst from its designer airline carrier and began leaping at their ankles.
The band stopped in a clamor. The Brazilian smiled that huge grin. And then he wanted to start again. The yorkie-poo was still having none of it.
• • •
Castroneves and Team Penske president Tim Cindric had a casual conversation about a year and a half ago. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner had been approached about joining the cast of The Bachelor and was intrigued. Cindric, a conservative sort who considers the image-making or -breaking potential of such things, tactfully suggested that the show perhaps did not convey the appropriate message. Castroneves relented, and was later invited onto DWTS like close friend Apolo Ono, an Olympic speed skater and the show's 2007 champion.
Good decision. Appearing on DWTS did far more for Castroneves, his team and sport than The Bachelor did for former Gators quarterback Jesse Palmer. In making 40-50-60-something hearts twitter, Castroneves had gone from a racer who could not dance to a dancer who raced. Now he wants to prove he's a racer who once danced.
"It's great to have this problem,'' he said. "I'm coming back to my territory to show everybody, 'Hey, this is what I do for a living,' and actually show that it's fun, too, that it's not all about doing the cha-cha-cha or the quick step.
"Going 220 mph is fun, too and hopefully they will find that out.''
St. Petersburg would appear to be the prime place to make his point. Castroneves has won the last two installments of the 1.8-mile trip through downtown streets by being, he said, "at the right place at right time.'' That's pretty much the story of his life these days.
With the IndyCar season over since September, Castroneves was so anxious to get back into a race car that he actually began to enjoy once-mundane aspects of his job.
"Even tests like we normally don't do — straightline tests for example, it doesn't feel like a test, just going back and forth — I was like, 'I'll do it. I'll get in a race car,' '' he said. "It's stuff like that makes me think, 'Man, I miss this thing. I want to be driving. Geez.' There's been a lot of good things, but I love racing and this is what I want to be doing.''
There was pride and perfectionism in dancing, but there is pride and pressure in a sport where perfection is at the whim of many variables, most of which more are more troublesome than a jealous lap dog.
Castroneves has raced for Penske, one of racing's gentry, since 2000 and claimed Indianapolis 500 wins in 2001 and 2002. It took him one try to win a dancing championship, but he so far has been shut out in the IndyCar series, his best finish second (2002) and third twice, missing a title by a maddening three points in 2006.
A season after Castroneves set an Indy Racing League record with seven poles but won just once and finished sixth in points, Cindric said consistency from driver and team is paramount. During his tenure with Penske (134 open-wheel wins and 15 Indianapolis 500 victories) teammates Gil de Ferran (two CART titles) and Sam Hornish Jr. (IRL) have won championships.
"We can't have the rear wing fall off in Milwaukee for him,'' Cindric said. "He can't put it in the fence when he's leading the race (Watkins Glen). It's both ways.
"We collectively didn't put ourselves in a very good position last year and we think we have the capability to do it, we just need to do it. His teammates, both of them, have done it since he's been here, so we're capable.''
Capable of being that dancer who became a racing champion.