INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The specks of gray in Helio Castroneves’ jet black hair tell one part of his legacy.
While the Brazilian admittedly is on the back end of his career now, there’s one way he feels forever young: Scaling the fence and sipping the milk in victory lane at Indianapolis.
That part never gets old.
“This track is like a part of history. People have been coming to this place for over 100 years. We’re like gladiators,” Castroneves said. “I think every driver has wanted to drive the Indianapolis 500, so this place is the place, this is the place of gods for drivers.”
Castroneves belongs right near the top.
Here, he has savored his greatest victories, endured his most bitter losses embraced some of life’s great milestones.
Two weeks ago, Castroneves was at the famed Brickyard to make his 300th IndyCar start, the same weekend he turned 40, or what he prefers to call the 10th anniversary of his 30th birthday.
The longtime Team Penske star is one of two foreign-born drivers with three Indianapolis 500 wins. He’s also finished second twice in the series’ biggest race, including last season when he lost by just 0.06 seconds to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the second-closest finish in race history.
Castroneves’ four pole wins are tied for second all-time with A.J. Foyt and Rex Mays. He’s also one of eight rookies to win the race and one of five drivers with back-to-back wins.
If he can add a fourth championship Sunday, Castroneves will become the fourth member of the most exclusive club at Indianapolis. But after trying five times to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, and on the verge of the longest winless drought of his 500 career, Castroneves insists time is not running short. He believes fans are rooting for him.
“I think they want to be part of history,” he said. “I saw Rick win his fourth in ’92 on TV, and that was awesome. I didn’t see A.J. or Al Sr. win their fourth. So I think for the generation today, who didn’t see Rick win No. 4, how cool would that be? You want to see history, right?”
Mears, now a consultant for Team Penske, believes Castroneves has the perfect combination — a relaxed demeanor and fearless driving style — for Indy.
In fact, it reminds Mears a lot of himself.
“This being the Super Bowl, the pressure can build very easily and everybody deals with pressure different,” Mears said. “Some people like it, some people pump themselves up. I was the other way. I tried to calm myself down because I figured I’ve got 500 miles to get excited. I figured if I’m cold, the car’s cold, the track’s cold that’s when I was just very focused, very smooth.”
Usually, Castroneves is just as cool at Indy.
Not so much this month.
He was involved in a first turn crash at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, then was docked eight points for avoidable contact. Just hours after that ruling came down, he wound up flying through the air upside down during a wreck in an Indy 500 practice session. He was not seriously hurt and back in the cockpit before the end of that day.
Qualifying didn’t go as well as expected, either. After being one of the fastest cars in practice all week, Castroneves stumbled in his one and only chance to take the pole. He wound up qualifying fifth, the middle of Row 2, with a four-lap average of 225.052 mph.
Now he’s heading into race weekend with a few more gray locks and, most important, with another chance to end the frustration of this month.
“If he does what I think he’ll do, he’ll end up doing it this year,” Mears said.
Castroneves feels like it’s about time.
“I do feel age is just number and when you have 300 starts and you still have the same feeling as the first (race), it can be gray hair, it can be wrinkles, you can’t take away that fire inside,” he said. “I’m going to do everything to make that (fourth win) happen.”
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