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Castroneves’s Mind On One As He Goes For Four

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 27 2010

Helio Castroneves goes for a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory on Sunday. He'll have another four-time winner helping him. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD Indy Racing League)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

In his bid to win a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, pole-sitter Helio Castroneves will rely upon spotter Rick Mears to help him avoid another Come-to-Jesus moment.

Like the one, for instance, Castroneves said he experienced Saturday during Pole Day qualifications for the 94th edition of the race under the IZOD IndyCar Series’ new “Fast Nine” format.

“To be honest, for the drivers, talking to everyone, especially with Dario (Franchitti), I joke around saying that, ‘Hey, man, I saw Jesus three times,’^” Castroneves said during a conference call on Wednesday. “Dario went out there and said, ‘Well, I spoke with Him three times.’ When you are competing at the level that we are competing against great drivers, great teams, it’s very difficult.”

Attempting to win his fourth Indy 500 since 2001 and second in a row from the pole figures to be no less daunting for Castroneves, the popular Brazilian who handed team-owner Roger Penske his record 16th pole. As such, Helio is the odds-on favorite to give The Captain his record 16th victory at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I wish,” said Castroneves, who earned the pole with a four-lap/10-mile average of 227.970 mph, nearly three mph faster than his winning effort from last year. “Certainly I know how tough is the place, how difficult it is, especially with the weather conditions. Not only that, but you got to expect the unexpected. Team Penske has won 15 times. They certainly know what they’re doing. I will do everything I can. If it means to be, will be.”

A fourth victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” would place Castroneves in the esteemed company of A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser and Mears. Or as they typically are referred to in Speedway lore _ Super Tex, Big Al and Rocket Rick.

“I have to say, you (media) guys basically comparing, talking about it…I’m trying to focus on the race, go out there and win the race,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda. “Yes, Indianapolis is the most important one. Again, if it’s not that this time, there’s going to be a next race.

“My mindset is what can I do to accomplish my goal to finish first and beat everybody. Now, when you guys talk about it, for me, Rick, A.J., they’re the gods of racing, the legends. I’m so honored to have this opportunity that I’m facing right now. Not taking anything for granted. As I said, I’m still a lot, lot to learn. Even to be compared with those guys, if I’ll be able to accomplish what I want, it will be a dream come true. So I’m just honored to be in this position right now.”

Foyt, Unser and Mears combined to win their four Indy 500s between 1961 and 1991. To-date, Mears’ 12-year stretch (1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991) is quickest among the four-timers. Unser (1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987) required 17 years while Foyt – first driver to win four –needed 16 years (1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977) to realize a journey that began in a front-engine Offenhauser-powered Roadster.

“When I won the fourth one, to be anywhere near compared to A.J. and Al, two of my heroes, was just a great honor,” said Mears, who seemlessly made the transformation from California desert racer to oval-track ace. “I think over the years as far as comparing all of us, I think desire, the love of what we do, sitting in that race car, competing, the competition…I think that love of what we do creates the desire, and the desire creates the results.

“Obviously, one of the most important things is all of us being fortunate enough to have the right equipment, the right people behind us supporting us to give us the tools to be able to accomplish those things. And then the final thing I think is having a lot of lady luck on your side and the car fall in your direction.”

Castroneves, who won his first two Indy 500s in 2001 and 2002 and is the only driver to start out 2-0 in the event, could win his fourth in just 10 starts. Mears confirmed that stat is stout.

“They’re all difficult,” said Mears, who made 15 Indy 500 starts, including a record six from the pole. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first, second, third or fourth, they’re all difficult. One thing, myself and Helio, too, we’ve always approached this race as a new day, a new race, almost the first time. You don’t really think about which one it is. We’re here to try to win the race.

“In this business, it’s about being flexible. You have to be ready for change at all times. Every day is a new day. You don’t know who is going to be strong, who your competition is, what the track conditions are going to be like. You got to be open and ready to change, do what’s necessary to get yourself in a position. The guys, the team all make the right calls, the right decisions in the pits, all falls your way to put yourself in position to win it in the end.”

In true Penske fashion, Castroneves acknowledged that having Mears as his spotter falls into the category of an “unfair advantage.”

“Well, every time I have Rick, especially in the 500, maybe that’s the secret, you know?” said Castroneves, 35, who has recorded six finishes of fourth or better in nine Indy 500 starts. “He certainly knows a lot in this place. Basically, he’s there to make sure that I don’t have any issues, stay out of trouble, especially when somebody come from behind, taking chances, unnecessary chances.

“So I’m glad to have Rick on my side being my spotter. Always when you have someone with such an incredible experience, obviously he’s the one to have the secret here, but I’m always listening, I’m always up for innovation or up for learning because this place is all about that. It’s all about taking every lap by lap and learning every time.”

Mears, whose laid-back personality is the near opposite of Castroneves’, said information overload will not be part of his job on Sunday. “I think Helio is a lot like me in that respect,” said Mears, 58. “I never drove with a spotter. We had communication to the pits. I couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time. I need everybody to stay out of my ear and let me drive the car.

“That’s the way I work with Helio. I’m there as a backup, as a safety in case he misses something. He’s aware of everything going on around him all the time. I think that’s the way it should be. To me, the spotter is a safety aspect in case I miss something as a driver. I try to stay out of his business. He knows what to do around here. He doesn’t need any help. So I try to stay off the radio, let him do what he wants to do and needs to do, unless I see something I can help with.

“Safety, as far as maybe somebody coming into his blind spot, in case he misses something. Safety in case something happens ahead of him, traffic, where I can point out which way to go to avoid it. Or somebody is running lines that are a little different that look good, might be working, make those suggestions. He pretty well knows what to do around this place and I don’t have to do too much.”

Case in point last May, when Castroneves qualified on pole, saw his crew win the annual Pit Stop Competition and, of course, won the race. Recall he did so barely six weeks after being cleared of federal income tax evasion charges following a protracted jury trial.

“You know, I was watching the Masters this year,” Castroneves said. “Phil Mickelson, when he won, he said people were asking why he play so well. He said, ‘This is the Masters, I feel comfortable playing here, seems to bring the best out of me.’

“We’re talking about the Indianapolis 500. This is the driver’s best team in the world when they’re competing here. This place does bring the best out of me. It’s a challenging place, very difficult place. Every time I come over here, it’s a new beginning.

“I do feel comfortable, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy. I like to go to the limit. Even sometimes, unfortunately last Saturday, we got to go many more times than once. But this is the greatest thing. I mean, it’s awesome to accomplish. Again, as Rick was saying, you got to have the equipment. When you come over here with Team Penske, you know offseason, actually, as soon as the race is over, they already start working for the following season. That shows the preparation is extremely important.

“Roger has 15 wins. It just shows The Captain, he certainly come over here prepared. When you have a combination like that, you feel definitely very good.”

Meanwhile, there is one part of this would-be record that Castroneves is seeking to downplay. Foyt, Unser and Mears all were born in the USA, while Castroneves is a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil. So certainly, Helio would be the first foreign-born driver to win four Indy 500s.

“It’s great. (But) I feel that I’m part of this country already,” said Castroneves, a resident of Coral Gables, Fla. “They say once the government chase you, you an American. Hey, I’m the one there.

“No, all joking aside, I don’t see my nationality being important in this matter. When you’re a race car driver, if you’re here in Europe, Brazil, wherever you are, if you love the sport like Rick was saying, you love the sport. You just got the best thing you can. It would be an honor, again, being foreign. But today I’m not even thinking about that. I’m just thinking about go out there and do my best.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 27 2010
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