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Castroneves’s Thrill Is Back

 Castroneves's 
        Thrill Is Back

It seems appropriate that Brazilian racecar driver Hélio
Castroneves, whose exuberant fence climbing after victories has
infused ‘the mother of all Indianapolis Racing League events’
with a new level of excitement, should lead another Brazilian charge.

by: Phillip
Wagner

The sun has rarely
been as reliable or consistent at the Indianapolis 500 in consecutive
classics, as were Brazilian racecar drivers in 2001 and 2002. But will
the sun and/or the Brazilians shine again this year? Five Brazilians shattered
expectations by finishing among the top-seven drivers two years ago when
Hélio Castroneves took his first checkered flag at the famed ‘Brickyard’.
And last year Bruno Junqueira, Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran all joined
eventual repeat winner Castroneves in leading that race at one time or
another.

Although only De Ferran
joined Castroneves among the top-ten finishers in 2002, Brazilians accounted
for a total of 7 out of the 20 top places (10 each year) at Indianapolis
in the 85th and 86th installments (35 percent).
Missing from each of those ‘honor rolls’ are Airton Dare and Raul Boesel.
The now-retired long-time Indianapolis 500 veteran Raul Boesel from Curitiba
(now in São Paulo) ran as high as 7th in 2002 and finished 16th
in 2000. Dare, who competed in each of the last two years, finished 13th
in 2002.

It seems appropriate
that Hélio Castroneves, whose exuberant fence climbing after victories
has infused ‘the mother of all Indianapolis Racing League events’ with
a new level of excitement, should lead another Brazilian charge. Castroneves
faced a bevy of reporters during a noon hour break from open testing.
"When you get here on that Sunday, the Sunday of the race" Castroneves
told a reporter last Wednesday, "and you see the 500,000 fans in
the stands … and you go into the first corner in the start …
you think, ‘Oh my god everything is different here’ … its an incredible
feeling". I guess that’s why they call it the ‘greatest spectacle
in racing’.

Cameras flashed and
microphones nudged each other aside as Hélio responded to questions
on pit row not far from where legend Mario Andretti was also answering
questions. "Its difficult to describe" Hélio said. "It’s
such an amazing place; it’s the tradition of this place that calls attention
to everyone. When you’re here in the paddock, in the pits, they show the
history of this place … you can’t stop dreaming about (it)".

I guess we can forgive
the two time defending champion, a good looking eligible bachelor with
a classic Brazilian accent, for feeling a little intoxicated. At only
27 he’s already trying to three-peat in one of international sports most
challenging and heart-pounding competitions at racing’s most hallowed
venue.

"This place is
very tricky" he continued. "You know you always have to watch
those flags on the top of the pagoda. You always have to keep watching
the wind because a sudden wind change might cost you a new car. You always
have to pay attention and never underestimate this place. You have to
respect it." Infusing humor with Brazilian bravado he turned to a
New Zealand television crew and added, with a smile and a twinkle in his
eye "Hey guys. Sorry, but it’s gonna be a three-peat, so, it’s not
gonna be (New Zealander) Scott Dixon. But maybe it will be number two
for him". Scott Dixon would do well to finish even second though.
The 22 year-old, who will be making his debut appearance at Indy and who
recently underwent surgery for a broken wrist still plans to race. But
finishing so high as a 22 year-old rookie with a broken wrist would be
asking a lot.

After the media
crush / one on one with Hélio

As the media melted
away Hélio and I began walking together toward his Team Penske
garage. I was asking him about the struggle for Formula Indy to get attention
in Brazil. "Indy car in Brazil, Formula Indy, it’s basically the
same (oval) we’re running right now. Indy became popular when Emerson
(Fittipaldi) started winning … (when he) won the Indianapolis 500
in 1989. Before that I don’t think Brazilians were very familiar with
that". Yes, I acknowledged, but doesn’t the popularity of Formula
One have something to do with it too? "I do think Brazilians have
a tradition of Formula One" he responded. "For so many years
there were so many great Brazilian drivers (that) were champions …
that kept the focus in Formula One. But not only that … the broadcasting
of Formula One … they were given more support than Indy … that’s
why it’s such a big difference in Formula One than in the Indy car".
I asked if he meant that was because media giant O Globo sponsors
Formula One. "Yes," he said, "exactly, absolutely. You
hit the nail on the head".

"I came here
in 1996," Hélio offered. "I was living in Columbus, Ohio,
racing for Tasman Motor Sports. They’re based over there. I stayed there
for one year and, actually, the cold weather was too strong for me. Basically,
I am from Brazil with tropical weather, as you know, so I decided to go
to Miami. And since then I live in Miami, where I live right now. I enjoy
it because a lot of Brazilians are living there. So it’s pretty good".

I asked how often
he gets back to Brazil. "Oh, not much. It’s like three, four times
a year. I’m from São Paulo (city). I was born in São Paulo,
but I was raised in the countryside in a place called Ribeirão
Preto, which is translation for ‘black stream’. I’m from the redneck country,"
he said with a smile "lets put it this way". For the curious,
Ribeirão Preto is north/northwest of Americana and Campinas, about
150 miles from São Paulo city.

I asked if Hélio
believed that the Brazilian drivers at Indianapolis were becoming a great
source of pride for Brazilians here in the U.S. "Well, it’s for sure,"
he responded. "But first of all I would say that the American people
and American country give us a great opportunity and that’s priceless,
you know, to come over here to work hard and be recognized with all the
fans, all the media, everyone. So it’s very nice to have a chance to exhibit
our skills. I feel great to be over here. And sometimes I even look to
my country and I say ‘look, they like me more over here’. But I understand
the thing about the media, as you just mentioned". Is Hélio
recognized in Brazil? "No, not at all, not like here. It’s nice to
be in a place that they will welcome you, and for sure in America they
do".

Relative to the U.S.,
Hélio acknowledged the growing problem of violence in Brazilian
cities. "Brazil has a lot of violence problems and unfortunately
that’s the bad thing in our country right now. It’s just a shame. São
Paulo has constantly been that way. Rio I remember was up and down. At
one point it was like extremely stupid and then it got like the military
police and the violence came down". I suggested that might have been
in the mid-1990s when Rio was trying to secure an Olympic bid. "That’s
right. That’s right," he said. "That’s what happened. Now we’re
back again because of those drug dealers and whatever. So it’s not good".

I asked Hélio
if he didn’t think that maybe it was long overdue for a South American
nation, and specifically Brazil, to host an Olympics, noting that either
Rio or São Paulo would again soon be put forward as a candidate
by the Brazil Olympic Committee. "For sure, if we put everything
together. We do have the potential. We’re capable to do that. We Brazilians
are warm and can welcome anyone into our country. I’m sure it would be
a good thing, as long as they (the authorities), obviously, can make it
very secure and safe. I see no problem to do that".

"I drive,
but she steers"

I asked Hélio
if he had brought any of his family over here. "My sister Katiucia
is working with me and she is not only working with me, but she takes
care of all my finances. She’s a fantastic person, she’s my right arm,
both arms, she’s a great person and I’m very happy to have her here with
me".

Twenty-nine-year-old
Katiucia Castroneves joined her charismatic brother in 1992, when he began
what track mavens call ‘open wheel’ racing with Vauxhall (Brazilian Formula
Chevrolet). Her financial management credentials stem from receiving a
Business Administration degree from São Paulo’s University Fundação
Armando Alvarez Penteado (FAAP). In actual fact, Katiucia is more versatile
than her degree might seem to imply. She wears many hats in support of
Hélio’s career: management, financial, marketing etc.

According to Hélio,
"Katiucia is my biggest fan, and was never against my decision to
be a race car driver. She is always there to support me, and she attends
almost all of my races. The funniest thing is when something happens,
(for example when there is) a mechanical problem. Then she gets really
upset and talks with everybody on the team. She always worries about me,
and always wants to know that everything is fine with me, that I am eating
well etc. I like to say that I drive, but she steers".

Interview Interrupted
/ talking with Tony Kanaan

When Hélio
had to answer a cell phone call and slip away for a time into the garage
I encountered his fellow Brazilian and good friend Tony Kanaan coming
out of an adjacent garage. His left wrist was broken when he crashed at
the Japan 300 on April 13th, and his injuries included a laceration
in one thigh that required 10 stitches to close. I asked Tony if he’d
be healed in time for this year’s 500. "I’m out for qualifying, but
I’ll be back in the race for sure. Hopefully Mario (Andretti) will do
it for me (qualify Tony’s car) and will do a good job and then I’ll take
it from there".

That, at least was
the thinking before Mario pulled a ‘flying Wallenda’ by flipping the car
three or four times in an airborne test run accident that caused him to
reconsider his potential role. Michael Andretti is owner of the Team Green-Andretti
racing team that Tony drives for and had asked his 63 year-old father,
an icon at the track, to qualify Tony’s car.

"I’m from the
same place in Brazil as Hélio," Tony commented. "We raced
together for a long time. We were teammates when we came to the United
States in 1996. I won the Indy Lights championship in 1997 and Hélio
finished second. We both went to Champ (CART) cars in 1998, and then he
moved up to IRL a year before I did".

Does he see any of
the other Brazilian drivers regularly? "Yeah, they all live in Miami,
so I see them all in Miami: Hélio, Gil (De Ferran), all of them".
I asked if he knew Raul Boesel, who had long been a favorite of mine.
"Yeah. He’s a good friend, but he moved back to Brazil". To
Curitiba, I asked, from where he originated? "No, he’s living in
São Paulo now". I asked how often Tony gets back to Brazil.
"Four times a year, five times a year". And is he recognized
in Brazil? "Yeah. I mean, we obviously have a lot of Brazilian racecar
drivers. But yeah, people know who I am. We’re competing against F1 but
I think it’s only gonna get better, as long as we keep winning races and
try to bring (more of) the Brazilian race car drivers up … I think
it might get a little more interest (in Brazil)".

I mentioned the notable
success of Brazilian drivers the past couple of years and asked Tony if
he believed it was generating more respect for Brazilians in the Indy
car circuit. "We have a pretty good reputation about having good
race car drivers just because that’s the nature of Brazilian drivers in
motor sports. But, obviously, everybody wants to be a race car driver
over there". Over the last couple of years, when he’s gone back to
Brazil, has Tony noticed that the drivers here have gotten a little more
notoriety? "I think they (Brazilians) just got to know the series
a little bit better. I mean, they always knew us. Indy was something new
but obviously now they’re getting more into it."

Back to Hélio
Castroneves

Shortly after Tony
had to excuse himself, Hélio reappeared and we continued our earlier
conversation. We returned to the subject of Hélio’s family, which
I discovered consists only of himself, his 29 year-old sister and his
parents. I asked if he sees himself going back to Brazil when he’s done
racing. "Yes, but I sometimes wish not to, to be honest. I wish not
because I really love this country and I enjoy to be here. But, obviously,
my background, my family and everyone, my friends, are from there. I see
my family a lot, my parents come here for a month and I go there, and
then they come here for another month. I get to see them a lot and we’re
very attached. But my point is, I feel so much involved here, I feel so
comfortable here that I wish to stay here. But, unless I marry an American…
then maybe I will stay here". He continued: "Looking at all
the Brazilian drivers: Emerson (Fittipaldi), Nelson Piquet, Raul Boesel,
everyone, basically went back to Brazil after they were done racing. So
I believe that’s what I will do".

Just a regular
guy

I wondered if Hélio
missed Brazilian food and music. "I do miss my mom’s food actually".
So, does Hélio’s mother make a ‘mean’ feijoada? "I
really don’t eat pork and I don’t eat red meat" he said. "I
do eat chicken Milanese, which is a pasta dish. And I do miss the rice
and beans sometimes". What about music? "I like more the Carnaval,
Ivete Sangalo, Daniela Mercury. I have a lot of Brazilian favorites, but
I don’t have a specific one". Thinking back to my conversation with
Tony (Kannan) I asked again about Hélio being able to travel in
Brazil without being recognized. "In Brazil I’m just a regular guy
and even here when I know somebody it’s the same way, I treat them the
same way. I’ve always been very down to earth. Not only that, but I’ve
been a fan once. I know what it’s like to be wanting to get an autograph
or take a picture of someone".

I related personal
experiences I’d had with people like Marisa Monte and Hans Stern that
led me to conclude Brazilian celebrities are special in the way they interact
so warmly with people. "Well, it is a way that we try to be,"
said Hélio. "We know how tough it is in the background. Nothing
came easy for me. I had to work hard. In anything in life if you work
hard you can achieve it".

Early family life
and racing roots

What was Hélio’s
childhood like? What did his father do for a living? "My father used
to be a businessman. Now he is retired, but he used to be a businessman
selling plumbing and pipes in Brazil. And actually that’s what got me
into racing, his business helped me a lot in most of my career in the
beginning. Without him I wouldn’t be here today. My family was very supportive
and the good news today is that I am able to return it back".

I related how Tony
(Kanaan) mentioned to me that they’d arrived in the United States as teammates.
I asked if they had been racing together in Brazil. "We raced in
go-karts. Not only with him, but also with Felipe Giaffone and Bruno Junqueira.
Yeah, we were racing together like since we were 13, 14 years old".
Go-kart racing in Brazil must be a big deal, I said, because I knew that
(Raul) Boesel had gotten his start go-kart racing in Curitiba. "It’s
big in Brazil," said Hélio. "It’s a kind of school for
beginning race drivers, and for sure it’s the best way to learn, and obviously
the cheaper way and the safer way".

Do a lot of people
attend go-kart races in Brazil? "A lot of people, yes". I asked
if they competed in different cities. "Yes" he replied. "For
me it was normally in the state, you know São Paulo state. But
we did have like a Brazilian national championship that involved everyone
from all of Brazil". In fact, Castroneves won the Brazilian National
go-kart Championship in both 1989 and 1991. "And even I went to the
World (Cup) Series in Italy," he said. There he finished fourth.

From go-karts to
IRL

So how did Hélio
and Tony progress from go-kart racing to IRL? "I went to Vauxhall,
or formula Chevrolet, which is like formula Ford, and then onto Formula
3 in (Brazil and) England. Its just a learning curve from go-karts to
the Brazilian Vauxhall, to Formula 3, to Indy Lights (or, now, Pro Series),
to CART and IRL". Hélio’s father was his primary source of
financial backing until he signed with Formula 3. That happened in 1993,
after Castroneves finished second in his only year competing in the Brazilian
Vauxhall series. Hélio got plenty of attention in 1995 when he
raced in the British Formula 3 Championship Series and finished in the
top-ten six times. For the two-preceding years he’d competed in the Brazilian
Formula 3 Championship Series, finishing second overall each year.

The now defunct Indy
Lights (variously spelled ‘Lites’ by some sources) series used to sponsor
a test in Phoenix, inviting 5 or 6 Brazilian drivers and an additional
4 or 5 drivers from other Latin American countries. Marlboro, one of Hélio’s
Formula 3 sponsors [Hélio now drives for Marlboro Team Penske]
asked him if he would mind testing for Indy Lights. "Formula 3 cars
at that time were like 200 horsepower", said Tony "and Indy
Lights (comparable to what is now called the Pro Series) was like 400
horsepower. So I said yeah, because I wanted to try more horsepower. At
that time there were only two seats (openings) available and Tony and
I did well and were selected. And that’s where my career started in America".

That was in 1996.
Hélio competed in Indy Lights for two years, earning four victories
and finishing second overall in 1997 (behind Tony Kanaan) by the narrowest
ever margin in series history. Since jumping to CART in 1998, Hélio
has continued to build on his impressive career performance totals, most
notably with his back-to-back Indianapolis 500 victories in 2001 and 2002.

Looking ahead to
this year’s race

How are things looking
for the Brazilians in 2003 at Indianapolis? And, having come so far in
such a short time, how does Hélio feel about his own chances? On
balance, Brazilians are facing greater challenges this year. Thirty-five-year-old
Gil de Ferran, a three-time starter in the Indianapolis 500, suffered
a concussion and some broken vertebrae in a Phoenix CART race on March
23rd. The Championship Auto Racing Team, or CART, broke away
from the Indy Racing League several years ago and now competes with it
– but in recent years has also rejoined the fray at Indianapolis.

De Ferran is two-time
CART Series champion. It isn’t clear to me that Gil will still be able
to run in this year’s 500. Tony Kanaan, of course, is also injured. But
Tony, who is second in IRL points this season, has already been fitted
with a brace and test-driven a go-kart to confirm that his wrist injury
won’t prevent him from participating. Raul Boesel, as previously noted,
is now retired.

So is Castroneves
feeling any pressure as two-time defending champion at Indianapolis? Is
HÙlio feeling any pressure to defend Brazilian pride in the face of injuries
to Brazilian drivers and their depleted ranks? If he is, he wasn’t showing
it. "I’m enjoying every second of this place," he insisted.
"This place is so incredible, and I feel such a blessed person to
be in the position that I am". I wondered aloud though, if HÙlio
understood how blessed the whole Indy series family must feel to have
him carrying the Indy 500 championship banner, because he shows so much
enthusiasm, which is so incredible.

"Well, I’m an
emotional guy" he said. "Everybody knows that. I really enjoy
what I do so it’s not really work; it’s a pleasure. And, not only that.
I’m sure any person would like to be in my shoes. When I wake up in the
morning I say ‘thank you, God’ to make me who I am. But I also am stressful
sometimes, nervous. I’m a human being. But I just try to express my good
feelings, and that’s why I want to win the race. It’s not easy to win
a race, it’s a lot of hard work ž but it’s not only this moment. I remember
how tough it was to get here and so that’s why I just enjoy every second".

I asked Hélio
about what he recalled about the finish in that first year when he won,
when he was nearing the very end of the race. Was he just waiting for
something to go wrong? Seeing Mario Andretti earlier had reminded me of
the hard-luck that had befallen many great drivers at the last possible
moment. "I just saw the number 2 back markers on the last lap and
I thought ‘you gotta be kidding me’," he said. "And there I
was on the last lap having Gil (De Ferran) right behind me. I almost couldn’t
believe it was happening".

So, kidding to the
New Zealand TV crew aside, is Hélio ready to predict anything for
the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500? Hélio responded:
"I wish I had a crystal ball you know. What I’m gonna predict is
I will do my best. I have a fantastic team to be working with, and I’m
gonna enjoy every second again".

Phillip Wagner
is a regular contributor to Brazzil. Other of his articles, including
his accounts of each of the two previous Indianapolis 500 races, may
be viewed at his web site at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
by selecting them using the select bar in the left frame. So many other
of his articles covering a broad range of topics from the music industry
to land reform. Phillip’s Brazil site is extensive and includes Brazilian
recipes, photographs of Rio and São Paulo, information on social
programs serving favelados in Bahia, and more. The author can
be reached at pwagner@iei.net

 

 

 

 

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