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Castroneves on track at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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Helio Castroneves is on his way to the airport when the call drops.

The 16-year veteran is headed home from a media blitz in Orlando and could be excused for being snippy. Instead, he calls back with a joke.

"I guarantee you if I was on my Verizon phone on the Verizon Wireless network," Castroneves says, "that call never would have been dropped."

The gratuitous plug surely pleases one of his Penske Racing sponsors while affirming the relentless optimism for the three-time winner and defending champion of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Whether he's dealing with the annoyance of a dropped call or the frustration of the worst season of his career, his megawatt smile never fades.

"When you are like that," Castroneves said, "you just gotta keep smiling."

Even through a historic drought that finally ended last year on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Between the introduction of double-file restarts, a different race strategist and a retooled braking style, Castroneves suffered through a 2011 season Penske Racing president Tim Cindric called "un-Heliolike." He finished 11th in points, five spots lower than his worst in the IndyCar series.

"He just needed to stick with what he knew," said his teammate, three-time series runnerup Will Power. "That's why he made some mistakes."

Castroneves didn't win a race or a pole for the first time since he was a 23-year-old Champ Car World Series rookie in 1998. He even struggled to a 20th-place finish in St. Petersburg, where he had won twice and earned two other top-four finishes since 2006.

"Somehow it was just a snowball," he said. "Everything was going unfortunately wrong."

The low point came in the third race at Long Beach, when he rear-ended Power with 18 laps left. Castroneves has rarely had problems with teammates but apologized to a peeved Power, who started from the pole and didn't talk to reporters after the wreck that knocked him out of the points lead.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon questioned whether Power's success was starting to bug Castroneves, who used words like "stupid" and "horrendous" and "disgusted" to describe the move.

"We just have to start all over," Castroneves said.

His restart didn't go much better. His quest for a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 ended with a 17th-place finish, and he led a career-worst 34 laps all season.

Even as his winless streak stretched to 18 races, Castroneves remained upbeat. The then-36-year-old never thought about retiring, even after the death of his close friend Dan Wheldon or the added responsibility of being a father to his daughter, Mikaella.

"Even when I was in the lowest point, I was like, 'There is no way,' " Castroneves said. "I've got to make it better. I've got to win this."

The turnaround finally came in St. Petersburg in last March's season opener.

Castroneves' No. 3 Chevy started in the top five for just the second time in 10 races. He hung near the top of the field and passed Dixon for second place with 27 laps to go. He inherited the lead moments later, cruised to a 5.5-second victory and scaled the fence at the street named Dan Wheldon Way to honor his friend and celebrate the end of an awful 12 months.

"Very sweet," Castroneves said.

Castroneves took the pole in the next race at Birmingham, won at Edmonton for his 21st IndyCar victory (he also had six in Champ Car) and claimed 11 other top-10 finishes. He remained in contention for the championship and finished fourth — good enough to quiet any critics.

"Helio found his stride again," Cindric said. "He found his niche, and he found his consistency. He was just very steady."

But how long will he stay that way?

Castroneves turns 38 in May and was the only one of the series' top six drivers older than 32 last season. He has a daughter and longtime girlfriend lodged into his Twitter avatar and racing life.

And thanks to two appearances on Dancing With the Stars — including the 2007 title, the same year he won his second Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — his magnetic personality and slides across the stage have created a fan base beyond sports that can open up other opportunities.

"I'm glad to have him with me," Power said. "He can do all the talking, and I can just relax."

Castroneves isn't ready to leave just yet. Racing legend Rick Mears told him he'll know when the time is right. And now, at the start of another season, the fire burns too strong to step away.

"I don't need to prove (anything) to anybody — just myself," Castroneves said. "I know what I want."

A fourth Indy 500 win. Another victory in St. Petersburg. The series championship that has eluded him throughout his career.

And, no matter when or where his historic career ends, to keep flashing his famous smile through the finish.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar opener, plus races in series including Indy Lights and Pro Mazda

When/where: Today-Sunday, downtown streets

Tickets: Prices $20-$125; gpstpete.com; (727) 898-4639, ext. 225

TV: NBCSN

For information: (727) 898-4639, ext. 225, or gpstpete.com

Inside: Driver bios, a course map, parking information and more. 2-6X

Castroneves on track at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/21/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:08pm]
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