PRUETT: Helio a champion at last

Image courtesy of Helio Castroneves

PRUETT: Helio a champion at last

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PRUETT: Helio a champion at last

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Helio Castroneves spent more than 20 years wondering what it would be like to wake up as the champion of a major motor racing series. On Sunday, the 45-year-old Brazilian got his answer.

A bridesmaid four times in Indy car racing and once in Indy Lights, Castroneves finished inside the top five on 14 occasions during his time in CART, the IRL, and today’s NTT IndyCar Series. Despite the three big wins at the Indianapolis 500, championship fulfillment was never achieved.

Late Saturday night, though, in one of the wildest races of 2020, the perennial runner-up erased the one glaring item missing from an amazing career as he, Ricky Taylor, and Alexander Rossi earned IMSA’s DPi championship at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Half a lifetime of waiting finally came to an end.

Not a race win, but something more important: a championship. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“It feels incredible; I feel like I’m 15 years old again,” Castroneves told RACER. “I remember when got my first trophy in racing, I wanted to show it to everybody, and it feels like that now, it feels absolutely brand new. That feeling, I don’t want it to be over.

“It was different from winning at Indy. I was talking to my engineers about how it’s so cool to be part of a such an incredible journey doing this championship in IMSA.

“It was also different because we were doing great in the first part of the Sebring race, (then) we had a big problem, and basically, our destiny was not in our control. But the ending was incredible. That’s why I fall in love with this sport. This is the feeling – all the races that we lose; all the races that we finish close; all the races that you win, it brings so much emotion.

“I don’t want this moment to stop.”

The American adventure for Castroneves began in 1996 with countryman Tony Kanaan as the young Brazilians joined the Indy Lights series. The friends would earn considerable success, with Kanaan capturing the 2004 IRL championship before adding the 2013 Indy 500 to his collection of career milestones.

“TK was one of the first people to send me a message (after Sebring), and so many of my friends, my teammates — like Gil de Ferran — congratulated me and were so excited about it,” he said. “Not only that but what I enjoy most is you see those guys, so young and being champions, and now you’re like, ‘See, I still can do it!’ It doesn’t matter how old you are. I competed with them, and if you summarize how many times I didn’t win a championship, you still have to say how many I competed for a championship and came so close. So now, I can say I’m with them in the same championship club.”

Just when it looked like all hope was lost for the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 after it suffered the early intercooler failure, fortunes changed in their favor when the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R entry threw away its chance to win the drivers’ championship and the manufacturers’ title for General Motors. In what appeared to be a rage-filled maneuver, AXR’s Pipo Derani fired the No. 31 Cadillac into the side of the sister No. 6 Acura driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, who held the race lead.

Montoya, who took first place from Derani in an aggressive move that came with a solid hip-check, was repaid with hard contact from the Brazilian, who spun the No. 6 Acura, regained the lead, and was promptly penalized by IMSA for the heavy-handed response. Shortly after serving the drive-through penalty, Derani paid a much bigger price when a steering failure — caused by hitting Montoya — forced the No. 31 to pit lane for lengthy repairs.

On the heels of the heated contact between Derani and Taylor at Petit Le Mans, and Castroneves’ intentional hit on the No. 31 in practice at the last round in Laguna Seca with Felipe Nasr behind the wheel, the boiling point was reached in Sebring between Derani and the Acura that had no shot at the championship. While holding the upper hand on the No. 7 trio who were helpless to respond, Derani gifted Castroneves the championship he sought, and made Acura’s day as it secured the manufacturers’ title.

Altogether, the exasperation and joy felt by Castroneves came, in large part, as a result of the bewildering behavior from Penske’s closest rival.

“With the problem we had, we were down like 11 laps, and the chance for us to control our destiny was gone,” he said. “There was no question on that because making 11 laps up, even if you’re in a 24-hour race, is unimaginable. So we were cheering for the 6 car to finish better than the 31, and maybe hope it would help us somehow.

“Man, when I saw the incident, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’ There were so many things going through my mind. Because towards the end of the season, that’s the car that was kind of challenging us in so many levels.

“After that happened and they lost some laps like us, I’m like, ‘This is crazy!’ I cannot believe it. I was like, ‘Nah, this cannot happen,’ But it did. You know, before that crash, I was thinking about how much agony we could go through in one race; and then they took themselves out and we won.

“That’s why the emotions just exploded on the timing stand. Wow, that was a roller coaster race, but this time, it was the perfect ending.”

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