Category archive: Helio Castroneves
INDIANAPOLIS -- In the immediate aftermath of the recent IZOD IndyCar Series race in Japan, Helio Castroneves was his usual happy-go-lucky self.
He'd overcome an off-road excursion at the first turn and drove through the field to a seventh-place finish. When I talked to him in the Twin Ring Motegi pit lane for his driver column that appears here on ESPN.com, he was smiling, happy to have salvaged a top-10 finish from a tough day.
Helio wasn't quite as sunny when my colleague Bruce Martin caught up with him on the way to Narita Airport a little while later. Castroneves had just been informed he was dropped to 22nd place in the final order after being judged guilty of passing in a local caution zone.
When Martin asked for a quote, Castroneves exploded with an unflattering portrayal of INDYCAR race director Brian Barnhart. He didn't hold back in a series of Twitter posts, saying: "It is sad to see one person being responsible for bringing down an entire series. Brian Banhart is inconsistent and even changes the rule book when is convenient for him, and his own personal interests. Making the famous @paultracy's words mine: Brian Barnhart is a circus clown! Very disappointed for finishing 7th and being put to 22nd. This is just ABSURD !!! Just expressing my feelings right now!"
INDYCAR announced Tuesday that expressing his feelings cost Castroneves a $30,000 fine. But I wonder if Helio might have handled the situation a bit more calmly if he had been able to express his feelings in the first place.
When we were working on his last ESPN.com column, Castroneves told me he wanted to send a message to INDYCAR about his frustration over Barnhart's on-track management of the series. He said he wanted it to be constructive criticism with a positive message.
Castroneves was delighted with the copy I sent him. "I love it, this is exactly what they need to hear me out!!!" was his e-mailed response.
But the columns go through an approval process with Penske Racing PR, and Helio wasn't pleased with the version that was posted.
"Man, what happened to our story?" was how he greeted me at Motegi.
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said the decision to soften Castroneves' ESPN column was his call. "You can blame me," he said. "It doesn't do any of us any good to trash INDYCAR."
Castroneves' offense occurred on the last lap of the Japanese race when he passed JR Hildebrand for seventh place. Drivers had been warned about the local yellow by radio.
Castroneves did not dispute making the pass in the restricted zone. His ire stemmed from being dropped to the last finisher on the lead lap rather than just being placed eighth behind Hildebrand.
Frustration about Barnhart's seemingly selective enforcement of a vague rulebook has been simmering within all of the drivers for quite some time and over the last three years Castroneves has been involved in several controversial decisions.
With his future at Team Penske in question for the first time in more than a decade, Castroneves is also under pressure to perform. He and Ryan Briscoe have both been consistently out-performed by Will Power over the last two years and the team may cut back to two cars in 2012.
His long history with the Penske organization and three Indianapolis 500 wins would make Castroneves the strong favorite to remain alongside Power. But many drivers begin to lose their skills in their late 30s, and Helio will turn 37 next May; Briscoe and Power are both 30.
His last win came exactly a year ago on the Twin Ring Motegi oval. This year he's notched a pair of second-place finishes -- both behind Power -- but only three other results of seventh place or better.
Castroneves obviously has a lot on his mind these days. He just needs to find a way to express it without getting edited, penalized or fined.
Every Izod IndyCar Series driver was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday for physical exams and mandatory winter safety meetings. Helio Castroneves had an additional reason to come to town.
The 34-year-old Brazilian again celebrated his victory in last May's Indianapolis 500 by unveiling his most recent visage on the iconic Borg Warner Trophy and collecting his Herff Jones "Champion of Champions" ring in a ceremony at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum.
With three wins at Indianapolis, Castroneves is indeed a champion among champions when compared to other top IndyCar Series drivers. Although he has never corralled a series championship, Castroneves is the leading money winner in Indy Racing League history with $16,315,178. Nearly $6 million of that total was earned at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Those Indy wins (not to mention a victorious effort on the ABC competition "Dancing With The Stars") also helped make Castroneves the most well known current IndyCar Series driver not named Danica Patrick.
He'll be back for his 11th campaign with Penske Racing, gunning for win No. 4 at Indianapolis and his first overall series title.
"It's just incredible," he said. "I guess I keep doing the right thing. I'm just honored to be in this organization. What I admire the most is the loyalty of Roger Penske and Tim Cindric and everyone.
"It's great just to be involved and race for that organization. You have a chance to win no matter what."
Castroneves was the first Indy winner since 2004 who didn't go on to become the IndyCar Series champion. Dan Wheldon (2005), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Scott Dixon (2008) did the Indy/series championship double.
The IndyCar Series confirmed at the winter safety meeting that it will eliminate the cockpit fuel mixture switch from its cars for 2010. The change has allowed Honda to almost double the horsepower boost from its overtake assist system.
"It will allow the drivers more strategy during the event," said Indy Racing League senior technical director Les Mactaggart. "If they want to save fuel, they can by controlling the throttle and equally so the overtake assist will be more effective because they'll have more horsepower."
AP Photo/Paul Beaty, FileThe IndyCar Series has some difficult decisions to make regarding its engine and chassis package.
More significant questions involving the development of a new engine and chassis for the 2012 season remain unresolved, and it appears battle lines are being drawn.
Honda recently indicated it is planning to build a turbocharged V-6 engine for Indy car racing. That goes against the wishes of a group known as Delta Wing LLC, which is developing an envelope-pushing new chassis designed to accept a four-cylinder power plant.
The Delta Wing project is led by Ganassi Racing designer Ben Bowlby, and several IndyCar Series team owners have endorsed building a prototype for testing and analysis.
Honda has repeatedly stated its objection to building a four-cylinder engine, but all signs point to Honda's being the only major auto manufacturer that is interested in participating in Indy cars in the future. IndyCar Series officials had been courting the Volkswagen Group and its VW, Porsche and Audi brands, but VW Group motorsport chief Kris Nissen has all but ruled out their participation.
"I am not 100 percent sure of the latest status, but I think it is not realistic for the moment that the VW group will do it," Nissen told Autosport.com. "Also IndyCar needs to settle down, and it looks like it is getting better. America needs to settle down, the car market needs to be stable again."
Caught in the middle is IndyCar Series competition president Brian Barnhart, who is believed to favor an evolution of the current Dallara chassis. Barnhart is under fire from teams and manufacturers for dragging out the decision with regard to the future direction of the series, and a fan group recently started an online petition to encourage his removal.
Barnhart and IndyCar Series officials must decide who they can most afford to lose: Honda and/or Dallara, or Ganassi and the majority of team owners who seem to favor a more radical shakeup of the rulebook and parts-supply system.
Helio Castroneves is out of contention for the 2009 IndyCar Series championship, but the 34-year-old Brazilian could play a crucial supporting role to help his Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe win the crown this Saturday in the Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
AP Photo/Tom StricklandHelio Castroneves, left, will be championship contender Ryan Briscoe's best friend Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
With eight points separating championship leader Scott Dixon and third-placed Briscoe -- and a 10-point difference between finishing first and second in the race -- Homestead is shaping up as a winner-take-all affair. Yet if Castroneves wins the race, it could still benefit Briscoe because every point he takes away from Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dixon and Dario Franchitti (who trails Dixon by five points) will be critical.
Castroneves has two victories this season (at Texas and the Indianapolis 500), and the Miami resident knows how he would like to see Saturday's 300-miler play out.
"If I have the opportunity to win the race right in my backyard, it would be great," Helio remarked recently during a break from tire testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "The perfect scenario would be for me to finish first and Ryan to be second so we can have a great celebration party at the end of the season.
"Certainly, I want to be in the mix," he continued. "The two Ganassi guys are going to fight each other to clinch the championship, and I'm sure each one is looking out for their own interest. The beauty for us is that I don't have to look in that direction. But you want to make sure everything is fair and square."
Castroneves could make things difficult for the Ganassi duo if he qualifies well and races at the front. Briscoe would like nothing more than to see his Penske teammate run interference on the Target cars so that he can drive away to win the race and the championship in one fell swoop.
Helio knows he can help out in that way, but he insists he'll play it clean, even if it means backing off like Vitor Meira did in the closing laps of the 2002 IndyCar Series finale when Castroneves and eventual champion Sam Hornish Jr. were disputing the title.
"There is a way of helping and there is a way of being stupid as well," Castroneves remarked. "You don't want to do anything stupid to anybody, including yourself. If you're going to take a chance, it's got to be a good risk and not an unnecessary one. If I can do anything, I will do it, obviously. But you have to think about the whole scenario."
Franchitti said he believes that Castroneves will behave in an appropriate manner if the championship hangs in the balance as the laps wind down at Homestead.
"You never know those things, but in Japan, when I was leading, we lapped Helio when he was having a bad day and he was great," Dario said. "He played absolutely fairly by all of us."
It's been a disappointing second half of the season for Castroneves in terms of results following his victory at Texas in early June. Now 10 years into his career with Team Penske and wrapping up his eighth IndyCar Series campaign, the three-time Indy 500 winner is still in search of his first overall championship. It's a goal he refuses to give up on, even if it won't happen in 2009.
"You always want to achieve your goals, and a championship has always been one of my goals," he said. "Along with that I want to win races, finish well in races and collect as many points as I can. But at the end of the day, you want to collect a championship.
"The good news is we keep ourselves hungry. When I come back next year I'm going to be as hungry as ever, because there will be more opportunities. There is an opportunity to be a four-time winner at Indy, and there is a championship as well. If it wasn't meant to be, it wasn't the right time. The Indy 500 this year is proof. We didn't finish three years in a row and now it happened. Now we know why."
Helio disputes the notion that he hit an emotional wall in the aftermath of his third Indianapolis triumph, which came on the heels of his acquittal from federal tax-evasion charges.
The previous year also was an emotional roller coaster for Castroneves. He gained a new legion of fans by winning ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" in late 2007, but went through most of 2008 riding out the longest winless streak of his IndyCar career before rallying with two late-season victories to nearly steal the IRL title from eventual winner Dixon. That's when the federal government came knocking with the tax-evasion indictment.
Since winning in Texas, Castroneves has racked up four DNFs and has achieved only one podium finish. He also crashed heavily in qualifying for the most recent IndyCar race, at Motegi, Japan.
But he insists he's ready to give his best for himself and his team Saturday near his adopted hometown.
"We're human beings, we always have ups and downs," Castroneves said. "Unfortunately we had some races where a lot of things happened outside of our control. Thank God it happened to my car, because if it happened to Ryan's car, it would have been goodbye to his challenge for the championship.
"It's one of those things. Sometimes we hit the right setup, sometimes we don't. Certainly, I'm ready for a nice race at Homestead, then I'll go home and recharge the batteries and have a great next year."
The 28-year-old native of Toowoomba, Australia, was running away at the front of an IndyCar Series exhibition race in Surfers Paradise, Australia, when he lost concentration and crashed.
Later that night, the crestfallen driver ran into Team Penske President Tim Cindric. It was a meeting that Cindric was unable to forget.
It also happened that Cindric was on the lookout for a driver to potentially substitute for Penske regular Helio Castroneves, who had just been indicted by the U.S. government for tax fraud.
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntoshWill Power won the pole for the IndyCar Series race July 25 in Edmonton, Alberta.
After briefly chatting with Power, Cindric knew he had found his man.
"I really didn't know him too well," Cindric recalled. "We were out that night and ran into him, and I asked him about [the crash]. He said, 'I made a mistake. I feel terrible, but that's what it was.' He was able to man up to the whole situation.
"I was impressed by the way he handled that. He's made that mistake now. You don't make those kind of mistakes more than once, usually."
As they talked further over the next few weeks, Cindric became even more convinced that Power had the right attitude for a job that offered plenty of potential, but little in the way of promises.
"It came down to his focus, determination, and you could tell that from an appreciation level and an opportunity level, this was a much bigger deal to him than it was for really anybody else we talked to," Cindric related. "We didn't know how the situation was going to play out, and there could have been a lot of gray areas.
"You didn't need a guy who was going to ask a lot of questions or put a lot of pressure on you, saying, 'When is it going to be my deal?' You didn't get the sense he was trying to steal Helio's program. You got the sense he was truly there to help with the situation, and whatever happens happens. That's what we needed. We needed something that would complement the situation, not complicate it."
Power made the most of his limited opportunity with IndyCar racing's most historic and successful team. He drove Penske's No. 3 car -- Castroneves' car -- to a solid sixth place in the IndyCar Series season opener at St. Petersburg. Then when Castroneves was cleared of his charges on the opening day of the Long Beach weekend, Penske rolled out another car, which Power promptly qualified on pole position.
Power's reward was a run for Penske in the Indianapolis 500, which in turn led to an additional five starts for the Aussie. He has made the most of the chance, never finishing lower than ninth and claiming two poles and scoring an impressive victory at Edmonton.
"In the position he was in, there was no clear-cut answer, but he's never missed a beat," observed John Erickson, who has managed Power's third Penske car, crewed by a group that usually prepares Penske's entry in the Rolex Grand Am sports car series. "At Long Beach, one day he was in the 3, the next day he was in the 12, and his attitude was like, 'No worries.' And he put it on the pole and drove a good race.
"He's just set the example for the way you would want anybody to handle it. He's a good racer, a good strategist during the races and a pleasure for everybody to work with. I've been impressed. Obviously the results are there, but his personality has fit right in. He's been a treat."
Now in his fourth full season on the American open-wheel scene, Power is indeed making his mark. He gained the reputation for being fast over one lap but sometimes inconsistent during his two-plus years in the Champ Car World Series (where he scored three race wins, including the IndyCar sanctioned 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach). Thrust into the IndyCar Series when Champ Car folded, Power occasionally struggled to master oval racing.
Of course, now that he has aligned himself with the best team in the business, even if it is on a part-time basis, Power has proved to be a quick study. He has been smooth, fast and consistent every time he has taken to the track in a Penske-prepared machine.
"I didn't really contemplate much when I got the call from Roger," Power said. "I needed to be in a place exactly like this. You've always got a good car that never breaks down and I'm just finishing the races where it should finish. The first thing is to bring the car home, the next thing is to be fast and show that you can race well.
"I have driven differently this year, when I think about it. At Penske, you realize that sometimes you need to sit back and watch things unfold and sometimes you need to go. I definitely think about it more. We need to keep doing the job like that to have a better chance to be somewhere full time next year."
Cindric and Erickson definitely like what they have seen to date.
"On track he's probably exceeded our expectations, given the limited amount of seat time he's had with us," Cindric remarked. "Off track, it's really his approach to the thing that's given him the opportunity. It would have been pretty simple when Helio came back to just let Will go, basically, because we didn't have any commitments beyond that. With the way he handled that whole situation in Long Beach, we felt like if there was any way we could put something together for Indy for him, we really wanted to do that. But that was kind of where our loyalty card ended.
"Then it was a matter of trying to put together a proper program to run some limited races this year to see what we could do for a three-car program next year, whether it's limited or full time. The fact that he's still with us means that there is still hope."
For Power, the gamble of taking a part-time role this year with Team Penske rather than waiting on landing a full-time ride with another team has more than paid off. At this point, it would be a surprise if Penske didn't find a way to expand to three cars full time next year, which would mark the first time since 1994 that the team would run a three-car effort.
"I guess I showed I can run at the front week in and week out, especially on the road courses," Power said. "Even at the [Indianapolis] 500, I ran at the front and had a very good race there.
"I don't know if it's about showing people. Honestly, I just want a full-time ride, and I think I can win a championship if I'm given the opportunity. But I haven't been thinking too far ahead either. I've just been enjoying it and having fun."
SPARTA, Ky. -- Maybe the Indy Racing League should shake things up a bit more often.
While implementing new aerodynamic options and introducing a mild push-to-pass system -- and doing so with a minimum of track time for the drivers to practice with it -- the IndyCar Series put on a race at Kentucky Speedway every bit on par with the best contests in the 14-year history of the league.
Sure, the evil Team Penske empire won again, this time with Ryan Briscoe behind the wheel. But to do it, they had to overcome a breakout performance from Vision Racing and Ed Carpenter, who came within 0.0162 seconds of stealing the show after driving the race of his life.
In a formula renowned for photo finishes, this one was the 11th closest in series history, not to mention the second fastest event ever in any form of American open-wheel circuit racing, with a 200.893 mph average.
"The old IRL is back on the superspeedways," declared third-place finisher Tony Kanaan.
Without question, this was the IndyCar Series' most entertaining race of the season, one that had the crowd, estimated at 48,000, on its feet for the last 10 laps as Briscoe and Carpenter ran side by side.
Both drivers had done a masterful job of saving their limited number of push-to-pass opportunities, yet ultimately, Briscoe was able to make the longer high line work as he edged Carpenter by about five feet at the line.
"I don't know if I was imagining that Ed Carpenter was getting wider and wider every lap," Briscoe said. (He wasn't imagining it.) "It looked like every lap I'd get the edge on him across the start/finish line, but it was getting harder and harder as Ed was getting wider and wider.
"Unbelievable," he added. "That was a fun race. There was a lot of racing out there and it was pretty intense."
Amen to that, after an IndyCar season that had degenerated into a series of follow-the-leader parades, apparently no matter what kind of racetrack.
There's no way of determining whether it was the 5-horsepower overtake option, the selection of seemingly insignificant aero mods, the recently graded surface of the 1.5-mile Kentucky oval, or even the fluky cancellation of Friday practice and qualifications after the track wouldn't dry out on a perfect, sunny day.
But the excitement returned to Indy car racing Saturday night.
"I hope the fans enjoyed it, because there were definitely some races this year where we didn't deliver the goods," Carpenter said.
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeRyan Briscoe had to feel good about winning the closest race of the season.
Carpenter, the stepson of recently deposed Indy Racing League founder and Vision Racing co-owner Tony George, was a revelation in his Menards-sponsored car. One of the few drivers in the IndyCar Series who came through the oval short-track ranks was in his element as he led a career-high 34 laps.
After starting 14th based on entrant points, Carpenter moved up to fourth place by Lap 30, and press-box pundits figured he worked his way up there by burning through most of his 20 push-to-pass ration. But it turned out the bright yellow Vision car was simply hooked up.
"It's been a tough year, and I was hoping this was going to be a breakout race to try to get our season turned around," Carpenter said. "I was giving Ryan all I had, and the team did a great job in pits, keeping up with the Penske and Ganassi teams as it cycled through the stops under the green. I was trying to keep up my end of the bargain."
Carpenter and Briscoe ran the last 10 laps alongside each other, veering alarmingly close on occasion on the run out of Turn 4 to the line.
"It was fun on a mile-and-a-half to run that close to a Penske car," Carpenter said with grin. "We ran side-by-side for I don't know how many laps there at the end of the race. I actually used my last push-to-pass on the last lap, so I managed that fairly well. I was trying to run wide and make him go the long way around and just make it a little harder and he was trying to pinch me down. Neither of us were gonna lift. It was close."
Close, but no cigar. Still, Carpenter raved about the morale boost that he hopes the result will provide the Vision team.
"I've always known I can win one of these, and getting that close, now I absolutely, positively, know I can win one of these races," he said. "It's a little harder to swallow when you're that close. It's not every day that happens. That was definitely the most fun I've had in a long time. It's been a tough year for our team and a rough couple of months for our family.
"I think if we would have pushed each other any more, Tony [Kanaan] would have won," he added. "I'd rather finish second than crash someone trying to win a race. I tried to race Ryan as clean as possible. It doesn't do anybody any good to race somebody dirty."
Kanaan, who has suffered a series of crashes and a pair of pit-lane fires in 2009, was happy just to get his season back on track. But he was even more pleased that the IndyCar Series put on a good show.
"I think we were all concerned about the package," he said. "We worked with the league to have more downforce and with Honda to have push-to-pass. I still think we need a couple more changes to be the way it was in the past.
"But if we wanted a photo finish, we got it. We're moving in the right direction for sure on the superspeedways."
The win vaulted Briscoe into the IndyCar Series championship lead, 8 points ahead of defending series champion Scott Dixon (finished seventh at Kentucky) and 11 points up on Dixon's Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti, who was sixth Saturday night.
Five races remain in the 2009 campaign, beginning Sunday with the Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
"This has been one of those years where no one can hang on to the points lead," Briscoe said. "So it's close. We're not going to get too content yet. I think we'll be strong at the upcoming road courses, but Dixon and Franchitti will be strong, too.
"We just have to keep finishing in front of those guys, keep our heads down, keep working hard and keep pushing forward."
Hopefully with some exciting racing, similar to what was on display Saturday night at Kentucky, along the way.
It's a sign of the times that most folks involved in a series created to preserve oval competition were looking forward to having a street race to spice up the show.
Dario Franchitti won the revived Honda Indy Toronto to re-take the IndyCar Series championship lead after an unpredictable afternoon of slam-bang racing in which Helio Castroneves temporarily turned into Canada's Public Enemy No. 1.
Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Will Power overcame first-lap delays to fill out the podium and a pair of Canadians starred, but ultimately didn't figure in the final reckoning. Alex Tagliani led 21 laps, but luck was not on his side in the end, while local favorite Paul Tracy was at the center of the excitement before he and Castroneves controversially crashed out on the 65th of 85 laps.
Tracy made a series of passes under braking for the Turn 3 hairpin at the end of the back straight, but Castroneves tried to maintain second place in the run out of the corner and stuck Tracy's KV Racing entry into the wall.
"I don't think he did it intentionally," Tracy said. "I think we got screwed in the pits and I was trying to keep up with Dario. We showed we can run with those guys. It's a sad way to end the day, but I guess that's why they call me 'The Thrill,' right?"
The Canadian crowd heartily booed Castroneves when he arrived back at the pits to the horror of team boss Roger Penske.
"[Tracy] would be the last guy I'd take out in Canada, obviously," Castroneves said. "I still love Canada, don't get me wrong. It's the way it is. People love you and people hate you, especially after what happened in 2002 [when Castroneves edged Tracy in the disputed finish of the Indianapolis 500]."
Franchitti was already in the pits when the yellow flag waved for Ed Carpenter's Lap 59 spin. Tagliani was set to stop a lap later, and was the latest driver to be adversely affected by the IndyCar Series' pit closure rule. The native of Quebec, who is running a part-time schedule for Conquest Racing, finished a disappointed ninth.
"For a part-time team it's very good," Tagliani said. "We showed we can dominate, and I thought we had it in our pocket today."
After winning the Toronto race ten years ago, when it was one of the top events in the CART-sanctioned IndyCar Series, Franchitti turned in a textbook performance to claim his third win of the 2009 season.
Castroneves' DNF turned the IndyCar championship into a three-man contest, with Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Briscoe separated by just 13 points.
Dixon finished fourth Sunday at Toronto behind the Penske cars driven by Briscoe and Power, both of which were forced to pit after suffering punctured tires on the opening lap.
The design of the Toronto street course allowed them to race back into contention.
AP Photo/Graham JardinePaul Tracy had his day end early with a walk to the safety truck after his car made contact with Helio Castroneves'.
"It's one of the few street courses I've ever been at where you can actually pass cars and go racing, so it was fun," Briscoe observed.
"That was what I call a race," Power added. "I passed a lot of cars and had a lot of fun.
"Having a really long straight going into a hairpin type of turn with heaps of room, that's what you need at every track. If you're fast, you can get through the field without worrying about using fuel."
Even if Castroneves can't pull himself back into championship contention, it should be a good fight between Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe.
Briscoe hasn't won since the season opener, but his series of second place finishes has left him in a solid position to make a run at the title.
"I'm trying to win, don't worry," he said. "In the last two races I think I've gained 10 or 13 points to the championship lead, so it's not all bad. I'm doing my best and hopefully we'll get some wins."
In Franchitti's last championship run (2007, when he drove for Andretti Green Racing), he built a big points lead and held on down the stretch. With seven races left and just a three-point lead over his teammate, he won't have that luxury this year.
"Everyone makes mistakes, and everybody also gets caught up in other people's problems," Franchitti said. "Last week [at Watkins Glen] I got caught in somebody else's spin, and it destroyed my race. It's all about how much risk you want to take. There were a couple times today where I felt if I took a risk I would end up with a bent race car.
"We've got to keep finishing races. One week Scott's going to be better than me or I'll be better than him, but we'll go out and race each other and have fun."
If the soul of stock car racing is in the Southeast, then the heart of Indy car racing is the Midwest.
Maybe that's part of why the aptly named Iowa Corn 250 Presented by Pioneer has caught on so quickly in the Hawkeye State. Modern Indy cars are about as different as a race car can be compared to the brutal sprint cars that compete half an hour away in the famous annual Knoxville Nationals. But that hasn't stopped local fans from filling Iowa Speedway to its capacity of 40,000 to see those funny rear-engine machines for the last couple of years, a trend expected to continue for Sunday's 250-lap contest (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
An audience of 40,000 certainly looks a lot better on television and creates a better vibe in person when every seat in the house is occupied, rather then when a 75,000-seat venue is half-full. And the Iowa fans go above and beyond to ensure that the IndyCar community receives a warm welcome.
The racing at Iowa Speedway was considerably better in 2008 than it was for the inaugural event a year earlier, when there was no passing to speak of and enough crashes on restarts to classify as comical.
Modifications to the aerodynamic rules and tires created more of a second groove last year, and it will be interesting to see whether the track, with an additional year of seasoning, will finally develop into a true two-groove track.
That was the intention when Rusty Wallace & Co. designed and built Iowa Speedway. It was created with the desire to create a turbocharged version of Richmond International Raceway, supersized from 3/4 to 7/8 of a mile.
The intentions were good, but in the first couple of years, Iowa Speedway was more reminiscent of the short-lived Chicago Motor Speedway, the 1-mile oval that Chip Gananssi built on the grounds of Sportsman's Park that was intended to be an upgrade on the venerable Milwaukee Mile.
CART raced at CMS for three years, and the shows were pretty dreadful, mainly because of the unsuitable low-downforce aero package that was mandated. The IndyCars, with their huge wings and considerably less horsepower, don't have that problem at Iowa; in fact, the issue is exactly the opposite, because the cars have so much grip that the drivers are easily able to negotiate the 0.875-mile bullring flat out.
A big factor in what produces more competitive racing at Milwaukee is that the drivers actually have to drive the cars, lifting for Turns 1 and 3 and setting the car up. At Iowa, and to a lesser extent at Richmond, where the IndyCars will race under the lights on June 27, the problem is that the drivers are flat on the throttle most -- if not all -- of the time.
The Milwaukee race last month produced five lead changes between four drivers, and the result was in question until Scott Dixon took the lead in traffic with 25 laps to go and drove away to a relatively uncontested victory. It was also the most exciting IndyCar oval race of the season so far after surprisingly processional affairs at Kansas, Indianapolis and Texas.
Target Chip Ganasi Racing's Dixon is a former pole winner at Iowa, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him score his third win of the season this weekend. Team Penske's Helio Castroneves is having a charmed season and will also be a front-runner, as will their teammates, Dario Franchitti (TCGR) and Ryan Briscoe (Penske). Dan Wheldon, who switched from Ganassi to Panther Racing this year, is the defending champion; Franchitti won the inaugural race driving for Andretti Green Racing.
It will be interesting to watch the Andretti Green Racing camp this week, to see whether Tony Kanaan picks up the pace in general, whether Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti are getting along, and whether Hideki Mutoh can match the career-best second-place finish he achieved at Iowa last year.
I have a hunch that Graham Rahal of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing will also run strongly, and it can only be a matter of time before this talented 20-year-old is mentioned in the same breath as the Penske and Ganassi drivers as a favorite every weekend. The kid is that good.
Maybe I just got out of the wrong side of the bed, but I feel a bit grumpy today. So forgive me if I come off as a curmudgeon with a few observations
• Is anyone else out there tired of Helio Castroneves' over-the-top -- some might say forced or fake -- enthusiasm?
I enjoy the fence climbing. Back in 2000 when Helio did it for the first time, it was an original and spontaneous victory celebration, similar to the way Alex Zanardi pioneered the art of spinning post-win donuts. But it's kind of like how NFL players dump a cooler of Gatorade on their coach after a big triumph. It's gotten a bit old and tired and repetitive, especially now that the less-than-graceful Tony Stewart copied the act.
AP Photo/Darron CummingsHelio Castroneves last climbed the fence after winning the 2009 Indianapolis 500 on May 24.
The fence climb is obviously still popular with the fans, but maybe it's time for Helio to come up with some new and different material to add some sizzle to his existing routine.
I've known HCN since 1997, back when he was driving in the original Indy Lights series and was known as Helio Castro-Neves (he dropped the hyphen midway through the 2000 season). His exuberant personality hasn't changed since then, and people who are close to him say that's the way he has always been.
In fact, a few years ago, Helio's longtime friend Tony Kanaan jokingly (I think) even listed Castroneves as his "Favorite Actor" in a press-kit bio.
But that's no excuse for the way Helio makes the EXACT same speech after every win -- bouncing off the walls like a kid who downed a 12-pack of Red Bull, spouting clichés like "pedal to the metal," "drove it like I stole it" and "keep working hard." You don't have to attend a press conference to obtain postrace quotes from Castroneves because they never change.
• Speaking of postrace quotes, I had to laugh out loud when I got Andretti Green Racing's press release after the recent IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Marco Andretti was highly critical of the way his teammate Danica Patrick defended her position late in the contest, costing the clearly much-faster Andretti a chance to go after the leaders and potentially compete for a podium finish or the win.
In his televised postrace remarks, an obviously unhappy Marco lit up Danica.
"The toughest [person] to pass was my teammate there at the end," Marco said. "I don't mind racing wheel-to-wheel, but that got a little crazy out there. I told her we're going to have to talk. I'm a little bit disappointed; I think three out of the four of us get the camaraderie of Andretti Green Racing so we're going to have to have a sit-down."
Here's the AGR version: "I (sic) happy to get the No. 26 car a top-5 finish -- we have been working really hard this season and our efforts finally paid off for the Venom (sic). We struggled on the restarts but seemed to get stronger on the longer stints, but unfortunately we were fighting traffic at the end and didn't have enough time to get a higher finish."
The quotes AGR attributed to Patrick and Tony Kanaan were similarly sanitized and bore little or no resemblance to what they actually said on television or to reporters on hand.
I was an Indy car team PR representative with PacWest Racing for a couple of years in the late '90s, and I always thought my main role was to help the press get what they need. Part of that responsibility is to portray the team in the best possible light, but not to the point where you are attempting to deceive the media or distort the truth.
There has always been an uneasy relationship between public relations representatives and members of the media. People in the press often refer to PR as the "Dark Side" -- and vice versa; Andretti Green's clumsy attempt to sweep a legitimate story under the rug (AGR Drivers Fighting Again!) is a perfect example of why.
One top IndyCar team has not issued its postrace quotes on the actual day of the event yet this year. After a race, I head to the pit lane and try to talk to as many people as I can, but it's not always possible to get to everyone you need to speak to. It's pretty difficult to write a deadline story on Saturday night or Sunday evening when you don't get quotes until 1 p.m. Monday.
But the same PR rep guards his drivers with the ferocity of a pit bull and gets very upset if you contact them directly, even if you have maintained a professional relationship with them over the last 10 to 12 years.
That's not to tar and feather the PR effort of every team; the IndyCar Series itself does a nice job of distributing information in a timely fashion, and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, KV Racing and Panther Racing come to mind as teams that go the extra mile to make sure journalists get what they need -- even if they are lowly print or Internet writers in a video-dominated world.
It would just be nice if some of the rest would stop treating the media with such contempt and help us do our jobs. We need to cooperate, not compete.