Race Weekend Central

Helio Castroneves’ IndyCar Career Is Historic

On Friday (Aug. 11), Meyer Shank Racing announced that Helio Castroneves would step down from full-time NTT IndyCar Series driving duties and his seat will be filled by IMSA driver Tom Blomqvist.

The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner will compete in a one-off entry next year for MSR, but beyond that attempt to secure a record-breaking fifth victory in the 500, it appears his full-season IndyCar career is coming to a close.

If true, Castroneves will rank as one of the best drivers ever to circle the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the most marketable when the series struggled through the Split. He will also step away with the most wins by a Brazilian in IndyCar history, a very notable feat considering those he followed and competed against from his native country. 

The always-smiling star’s career includes, pending any future results, 31 American open-wheel wins, 47 poles, and 94 podiums in 388 races (as of the 2023 Gallagher Grand Prix). Most of those results were with Team Penske, for whom he ranks second in wins, in between leader Will Power and mentor Rick Mears. But the crowning accomplishments he will be remembered for will undoubtedly be his four Indianapolis 500 wins.

The Brazilian would join the American open wheel racing ranks in the midst of a South American golden era in the U.S. He joined fellow countryman Tony Kanaan in an era of CART which included the veteran Brazilian drivers Gil De Ferran, Andre Ribeiro, Roberto Moreno and Mauricio Gugelmin. Each were chasing the legacy of the great Emerson Fittipaldi, whose choice to extend his racing career after Formula 1 in IndyCar no doubt popularized the series back in their native country. When Castroneves started his first race, the 1998 Marlboro Grand Prix at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Brazilians had won 28 IndyCar races (Fittipaldi had 22 of these). By the end of his career, Castroneves would outdo that total by himself.

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The Start

In 1998, Castroneves (then showing up on scoring summaries as Castro-neves) got his start in CART with the Bettenhausen Racing team. The season was a challenge. In a time of maximized engine performance, he suffered mechanical woes with his Mercedes power plant multiple times as well as crashes and didn’t finish 10 of the 19 races. But there was a spark in the young man’s race style, as he led for double digit laps at Long Beach and Vancouver, and racked up a runner-up at Milwaukee. 

The next year he jumped to Hogan Racing, which previously had partnered with Team Rahal to win the 1992 championship, but was now an underfunded team that would close shop by the end of the year. Castroneves struggled again with finishing, only completing seven of the 20 races that year, but he showed his qualifying prowess. He earned his first pole at Milwaukee, started on the front row two more times, and earned his second runner-up at Gateway.

The results were very inconclusive with so many DNFs, but it was enough for Roger Penske to sign 24-year-old Castroneves for the 2000 season to take the seat earmarked for the late Greg Moore.

With a squad that could put a reliable and fast car around him and a team focused on preparation, the Brazilian took off. His first win came at Detroit’s Belle Isle circuit – where he started his fence climbing celebration which has been mimicked by many others – and within the next two years he’d add five more victories to his tally.

After the 2001 season, Team Penske moved to the Indy Racing League, which later absorbed CART to form what is now the NTT IndyCar Series. However his success was slightly stuttered as he learned a new chassis and engine combination. It took several years for Penske to become the dominant player again (helped by their move to Honda power in 2006), but in the meantime Castroneves won his first two Indy 500s in back-to-back years, and was one position away from being the first three-time winner in consecutive years in 2003. 

Career Moments

For 11 straight years, Castroneves would garner at least one win and finish no worse than sixth in the championship. Highlights also included winning 7 poles in 2007 and visiting victory lane four times in 2006, the most he’d score in a single season.

Off the track, IndyCar tried to leverage the Brazilian as their top star, going so far as to get him on the popular TV show Dancing With The Stars. By the end of the show’s fifth season he was the champion, which was admirable considering the importance of the fan vote to advance each week. His engaging demeanor went a long way to increase his popularity outside of the racing world. 

But, his career was not without controversy. The 2002 Indy 500 finish was highly contested, on track and in the courts, by second place team Team Green, as they thought their driver Paul Tracy was leading when a late yellow came out and should have been the victor. Regardless of opinions, Penske and Castroneves got to keep the trophy and their name in the record books. 

Then in 2009, due to a complicated and sped up contract negotiation process after Moore passed, Castroneves had to deal with a tax evasion case that took him out of the driver’s seat for the first race of the season (but also put a newly signed Power into a great opportunity in which he was later added as a third driver). The case was found in Castroneves favor, and he showed up in Indianapolis to a raucous applause – go back and watch the driver intros and see for yourself – and thanked the crowd by winning his third 500.

Emotions On His Sleeve

Throughout his career, Castroneves has presented himself as emotional and quick to tears when he achieved results. But at the same time he’s expressed his passion via anger and frustration. 

In the 2010 race at Edmonton, a late penalty from race control was issued to Castroneves for blocking Power on a late restart. The Brazilian never answered the black flag and therefore the win was given to Scott Dixon. After hearing the official result, Castroneves stormed from pit lane to the flag stand, and twice grabbed IndyCar officials by their collars, one being then-head of security Charles Burns who humorously stood his ground against the smaller Castroneves without even a muscle twitch of concern.

It was only after Team Penske President Tim Cindric intervened did the situation diffuse itself. 

More recently, Castroneves expressed his frustration with Alexander Rossi during the 2021 Long Beach Grand Prix when the then-Andretti Autosport driver exited the pits in front of him, which later led to contact at the tight fountain complex. His tirade to NBC about the incident became viral on the internet.

Quest for the 4th

Castroneves career may have had moments of various emotions over on-track actions, but he displayed his utmost respect for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From 2010 to 2020, he tried in vain to win his fourth Borg Warner Trophy, a quest he wanted to accomplish so as to be on the same mantle as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and his mentor at Team Penske, Mears. 

There were close calls. In 2014, in an epic duel with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Castroneves held the lead coming to the white flag. But the American got around him on the outside in turn 1, a la Mears in 1991, and won. The next opportunity was in 2017, in a duel with Takuma Sato, but he was unable to make another run in time to get around the Japanese driver. Castroneves settled for second again. 

Each 500 attempt and lap led inched him closer to the magic fourth win, as the trials increased his popularity amongst the spectators at the Memorial Day Classic. The fans knew that he was trying to knock on the gates of Indianapolis 500 glory. 

Finally, he got it. 

The 2021 Indianapolis 500 win was more than a victory for Castroneves and his legacy. It was a monumental reawakening of the Speedway after Covid-19 had shut the world down for the previous 18 months. It was fitting that Castroneves was the winner, as his importance to the series manifested in the ashes of the Split and the sport’s recovery. He helped bring the prominence back to the racing that had been neglected and here he was again making an impact. After Castroneves masterfully placed his machine in front of Alex Palou and took the victory, the emotions from fans helped release months of personal tension from the 150,000 in attendance. The admiration from the crowd was overwhelming as many climbed the fence in celebration as he made his traditional victory lap in the pace car. 

One Missing Trophy

The win was hopefully going to spark a rejuvenated Castroneves to finally get one accomplishment that had alluded him his whole career – the Astor Cup for winning the championship. It appears that will not happen now, as he sits 19th in the standings in his final full season.

Without a doubt, he will eventually retire from IndyCar racing with the title of “Greatest Driver to Never Win a Championship.” Out of the top-20 drivers in American open-wheel all-time wins, he is the only one with no season title. On four separate occasions he was runner-up, and two other times he held the points led heading into the last race, but was unable to clinch.

In 2006 he’d come the closest, even though he finished third in the final results. He started the season finale at Chicagoland as the point leader and by the race’s end, he ran fourth, behind teammate Sam Hornish Jr., who could take the title in a tiebreaker over race leader Dan Wheldon as things stood. All Castroneves had to do was pass Hornish and he could win by one point over Wheldon. But in the high-downforce oval racing era, passing Hornish on a banked 1.5 milers was a significant challenge, and Castroneves was unable to do it.

At the checkered, Hornish took the championship over Wheldon in a tiebreaker, and Castroneves fell to third, losing by a mere two points.

It’s a blemish that Castroneves will take with him when he decides to call it a career, but he will have (at least) four mini Borgs to look at when thinking about those close calls to win the championship. 

End Of An Era?

As mentioned, Castroneves started his IndyCar career in a golden age of Brazilian drivers in the series. More were to follow him too and win, including Bruno Junqueira and Cristiano da Matta. However, currently he is the sole Brazilian in the series after fellow countryman and long time friend and rival Kanaan retired after the Indy 500 this year. With few in the Road to Indy pipeline with realistic chances of competing in IndyCar next year, this could be the first time in several decades that a Brazilian isn’t in other races besides Indy. But that might be a short lived scenario if Nicolas Giaffone continues winning in the junior American open-wheel series ranks.

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Helio Castroneves Retiring From Full Time After 2023, Tom Blomqvist to Drive in 2024

Even though his full-time IndyCar career may be over, Castroneves is adamant he isn’t done driving. His time in the IMSA championship with Team Penske showcased his ability to win there, and like Fittipaldi, extend his career in another form of racing. He already has one sports car championship in 2020 and nine wins, including the last three 24 Hours of Daytona.

The good news for the IndyCar paddock is Castroneves will look to move into advisor role next year with MSR, which is a smart business move by the team for their drivers and fans. It would be a loss not to continue seeing the energetic 500 winner roaming the garages during IndyCar weekends, and it still gives him an opportunity to engage with a fanbase that has appreciated him for so long.

Of course, there is the drive for five at next year’s Indy 500, a pursuit in which a victory will elevate Castroneves to a step atop all others that have rode the razor’s edge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Considering everything he’s accomplished in his historic career, that fifth win would put him in consideration as the greatest of all time to run at the legendary Brickyard.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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