By Jeff Olson
If you studied Helio Castroneves’ race Sunday at Road America, with its daring passes, surgical precision and timely adustments to changing weather conditions, you probably came to the same conclusion reached throughout the pits:
Helio’s not going anywhere — except fast — anytime soon.
At 45 years old, Castroneves laid down one of the best performances of his career, teaming with Ricky Taylor to win the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race for Acura Team Penske. He did it with a nearly blind pass in pouring rain, a move Taylor called "magic."
The questions afterward, as usual, revolved around Castroneves’ future. As he turns from the win in Wisconsin toward his quest for a record-tying fourth victory in the Indianapolis 500 later this month, Castroneves recalls a conversation with Mario Andretti during last year’s 500.
"I said, ‘Mario, why did you stop racing?’" Castroneves said. "I could see in his eyes that he never wanted to retire. He was 54 when he stopped. Age is just a number. He still had that sentimental feeling. If guys as incredible as Mario can do it, why can’t I? As long as you have the desire, the work ethic and the love for the sport, you can keep racing."
After a show like Sunday’s, why not? After replacing Taylor for the second half of the 2-hour, 40-minute trek around Road America’s 14-turn, 4.048-mile circuit, Castroneves dived past Oliver Jarvis for the lead heading into Turn 5. He then battled spiritedly with Jarvis and Harry Tincknell for the lead until a downpour forced a red flag.
Of all his race wins, Castroneves called Sunday’s victory his most unique.
"There hasn’t been one like this," Castroneves said. "It was managing traffic, managing attacks from other competitors, and then dealing with such difficult conditions. All of this was in one race. In IndyCar, you have one or the other. You don’t have all three at once. For me, it ranks right up there, no question."
Once the race resumed, Castroneves found himself chasing Renger van der Zande’s Cadillac. With 5:15 left and visibility gone, Castroneves shot his No. 7 Acura ARX-05 DPi past Van der Zande’s Cadillac DPi-V.R for the lead as Taylor watched on monitors in the pits.
"This drive was really something special," Taylor said. "He dug down pretty deep for that one. He wanted it really badly. You could really see it just by how he was driving. I was thinking he was going to have to pull out some magic, and that was really some magic. That was a special performance, for sure."
It happened under the most unusual of circumstances, too. Twelve days before the race, Acura and the team announced they would part ways at the end of the 2020 season. The team’s future is uncertain, and Taylor said its drivers have been allowed to pursue other rides for 2021.
Castroneves has said he expects this Indy 500 to be his last with Team Penske and that he’s seeking other opportunities for next season.
"Hopefully with the experience I have — not only in IndyCar, but in sports cars — I’ll be able to find myself in a good position and will be able to help a team, whether it’s an experienced team or a young team," he said. "I’m open to a conversation. I’m ready to keep it going."
For now, at least, he’s keeping it going at Indy. He won the race in 2001, 2002 and 2009. In 19 Indy 500s, he’s finished on the podium seven times, won four poles, led 305 laps and completed 96 percent of the laps. He’ll prepare to add to that résumé when practice for the 104th running of the race begins Aug. 11.
The transition from sports cars to open-wheel racing is familiar to Castroneves, who moved from a fulltime IndyCar ride with Team Penske to its sports car team in 2018 while continuing to compete at Indy.
"You’ve got to reset the whole thing and start all over again," he said. "When you have a group as good as we have, that’s a good thing. I’m excited. I can’t wait to be back."
He paused and began to laugh. "My bus is already there," he said. "I’ll be there very soon."
When he arrives, he’ll be the center of attention, as always. Castroneves relishes the spotlight at Indianapolis. Or any racetrack, for that matter.
"He’s a huge personality, but you can’t let that fool you into thinking he isn’t a fierce competitor and extremely focused," Taylor explained. "At the same time, he’s always happy. There are times when we’ll go through a rough session and everybody is frustrated and down, but he’s always an optimistic and happy person. It’s always nice to be around someone who’s that positive."
And so it continues. Twenty-three years and 422 races into a noteworthy career, a racer rediscovered his motivation in the rain. He’s still got it, still on top of things, still capable of triumph, still hoping to continue.
"This is exactly why I love racing so much," Castroneves said. "You reinvent yourself. You learn. You prove to yourself that you’re still capable of doing things. I still have a lot of fire in me. There’s a lot of fuel to burn. It was great to be able to show what this group of people can do. There was a lot of risk, but with risk comes great reward."
And a great career. One that, if he has his wish, won’t be ending anytime soon.