If Helio Castroneves gets any happier, he just might explode. The high-energy Brazilian, riding a three-race winning streak in IMSA thanks to a series of stupendous drives by the Team Penske veteran and his teammate Ricky Taylor, has ventured into new territory. With their most-recent win, scored last weekend at Mid-Ohio for Acura in their ARX-05 DPi, the 45-year-old achieved a career first that’s hard to ignore.
“I’ve had years in IndyCar where I won a lot of races: In 2001, I had three in CART and then we won the Indy 500 that year; but this is the first time for three-in-a-row,” he told RACER. “Let me tell you, when Ricky crossed the finish line, my eyes got a little bit watery, you know? Like, I can’t believe it. We did it! Three in a row! It’s really cool to have this experience. I know Ricky had five (consecutive) wins in 2017, so I’m trying to break his record…
“Anytime you win back-to-back-to-back, it’s, for me, a first experience, so it’s great. And, yeah, we just got to keep carrying the good momentum. Hopefully we carry this for the last races and get the championship for Acura Team Penske.”
Another remarkable aspect of Castroneves’ season has come in the form of defying the negative expectations that often come with age. Together with Taylor, the No. 7 Acura DPi has become the leading entry within ATP after Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya took the No. 6 ARX-05 to the 2019 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship title.
And, within Penske’s four-car Indy 500 program in August, Castroneves – lacking the usual IMS road course warmup – turned a poor qualifying effort that left his No. 3 Chevy 28th on the starting grid into an epic drive where he improved 17 spots to finish 11th, ahead of teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.
If there is an age-related decline in speed or competitiveness on his horizon, it hasn’t found the intended target.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: age is just a number,” he said. “The only people who talk about my age are outside the team. When you love what you do, when you’re surrounded by good people, you can continue to succeed; and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just enjoying every minute of it – especially this Acura Team Penske program. Unfortunately, it’s going to end, so I’m cherishing every minute we have left.”
With his long-standing Team Penske role – across 18 full-time years in IndyCar and the last three in IMSA – set to conclude in November, Castroneves received permission from the Captain to get a jump on his job search by joining Arrow McLaren SP this weekend as a stand-in for the injured Oliver Askew.
Although some have bemoaned the fact that the 2019 Indy Lights champion is being temporarily replaced by a driver who finished second in the 1997 Indy Lights championship – while Askew was just nine months old – Castroneves brings something to the Arrow McLaren SP team that it has never had.
IndyCar drivers with great promise and potential have strapped into cars owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson since 2001, and some have joined the program with a handful of wins to their credit. But Castroneves is the first to enter the building from a top-tier outfit, with two dozen wins and a lifetime of invaluable IndyCar lessons to download. Amid AMSP’s breakout season with Pato O’Ward holding third in the standings, and with Askew sidelined for an undetermined period of time, an infusion of Penske-level experience and speed can only help move the team forward.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure that Oliver gets well,” he said. “This is a serious thing, and you want to make sure that he gets treated. He’s a young man, and he’s got a bright future ahead of him. In that particular situation, you never want to go in when somebody’s not feeling well; but these things always happen in sports. When I came out and said I want to keep going in racing, some (IndyCar) teams heard me, and when you have an opportunity like this with such a good team, you’ve got to take it,” he said.
“I’m excited to represent a great brand, a great team. And I do believe the results we’ve had in IMSA is showing. Plus, the experience helps: been there before, running this track. When you don’t have much time to prepare, we just (have) to do our best. And I tell you what, it seems incredible trying to adjust every single bit of the (No. 7 Chevy) to my liking. There’s even a different steering wheel, but some of the tools that I am used to having in the car, they’re trying to mimic for me this weekend. It’s a great group of guys; I’m very, very impressed.”
This is where his extreme excitement comes into play. Adding to the wave of positivity taking place in IMSA, Castroneves has a chance to show the IndyCar paddock that he isn’t past his prime. It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate his skills and value outside Team Penske’s empire. When he takes the rolling start for AMSP on Friday for Round 1 of the Harvest GP doubleheader, a streak that started with his first IndyCar race for Penske will come to an end, some 7495 days after it began at Homestead in 2000.
“It’s something new I haven’t experienced in a very long time,” he said. “And coming back to Indianapolis again, a place that I have great memories, it’s always incredible. To be in this situation, back in IndyCar – I can’t wait to start running.
“(But) look – driving for Roger Penske for so long here, my biggest fear right now is walking into the wrong garage!
“This opportunity is great. Whatever I can do to help this team to develop and then continue going uphill, I would love to be part of it. Right now it’s just one-time deal, (but) let’s see what happens in these two races.”