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Helio Castroneves Is Cooking Once Again

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 13 2009
 

IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves hams it up as world-renown chef Stephan Pyles presented a roasted chicken.

IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves hams it up as world-renown chef Stephan Pyles presented a roasted chicken.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Dallas – When it comes to the manly art of cooking, Helio Castroneves has more in common with Chef Boyardee than Chef Stephan Pyles.

“The only thing I am good at making at a restaurant is reservations,” Castroneves said Monday afternoon, two days removed from qualifying on-pole for the 93rd Indianapolis 500.

Undaunted by his lack of a track record in the kitchen, the native Brazilian donned a white chef’s coat and salivated on-cue as sous chef for the day with Pyles, who is billed as the founding father of Southwestern Cuisine. 

Castroneves’ promotional visit to Stephen Pyles Restaurant here was tied to the IndyCar Series Bombardier Learjet 550k night race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6.

Pyles got into the spirit by buckling up for a back-of-the-cockpit ride through downtown in a street-legal, two-seat IndyCar parked outside his Arts District eatery.

Castroneves then got behind a hot stove to learn how to prepare three dishes – salmon with roast banana, black beans and coconut curry; chicken risotto with corn, red bell peppers and pineapple; and chocolate fondon. 

The dessert, chocolate fondon, was unbelievable,” said Castroneves, who also needed an extra large doggy bag for the plane to carry the chocolate cake Pyles presented in honor of Helio’s 34th birthday on Sunday. 

“Helio shows lots of promise in cooking,” said Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan who has created 14 restaurants over the past 24 years. “Just like his dancing, this is just one more thing for him to conquer.” 

Pyles has cooked for celebrities ranging from HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Mikhail Gorbachev to Mick Jagger and Sharon Stone. Among the books Pyles has co-authored is “Tamales,” a subject in which bachelor Castroneves is well-versed.

Pyles also is a founding board member of Share our Strength, an international hunger relief organization. And he was co-founder of The Hunger Link, Dallas’ perishable food program which links restaurants and hotels with shelters and other feeding programs. 

With each finished dish, Pyles also teased Castroneves’ palate with sips of white and red wine, and champagne. 

“The experience was just incredible,” Castroneves said. “Stephan has 24 years in the business and there is no doubt that he is absolutely phenomenal. Obviously, I learned how to appreciate cooking today. If you want to impress somebody, this is the place to be. Now I need his cell phone number.” 

Outside of Danica Patrick, no IndyCar driver can match Castroneves for crossover marketing power and appeal. Castroneves’ popularity shot to new heights after the 2007 season, when he and partner Julianne Hough won that season’s edition of “Dancing with the Stars.” Castroneves’ charm, wit and self-deprecating demeanor are made-to-order for any social setting. 

And as noted by team-owner Roger Penske Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Helio’s personality too often obscures the fact that the guy is one helluva open-wheel driver. Castroneves earned his third pole in nine Indy 500 starts with a four-lap/10-mile average of 224.864 mph around the 2.5-mile IMS oval. A back-to-back winner of the Indy 500 in 2001-02, Castroneves knocked teammate Ryan Briscoe out of the coveted No. 1 spot for the May 24 classic after opting to withdraw his first qualifying effort. On a day when gusty winds played havoc with the stability and handling of every trimmed-out Dallara/Honda, that decision was gutsy. 

This is the same Castroneves who as recently as April 17 was unsure if he would ever drive in the series again. Castroneves, sister Katiucia, and Michigan motorsports attorney Alan Miller were acquitted that Friday on most counts of trying to evade more than $2.3 million in U.S. income taxes. The decision ended a six-week jury trial and six months of hell without wheels. 

It was that backdrop that prompted Penske, whose drivers have authored a record 15 Indy 500 poles and 14 Indy 500 victories, to say of Castroneves during his post-qualifying news conference, “…this shows how good he really is.” 

Penske added, “I think as far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty special to see Helio on top from his circumstances. But he didn’t get it because we said, ‘OK, Helio, you’re going to get it today.’ He won it, he earned it, and Briscoe had a chance to get it, too. So I think it worked out fine.” 

His cooking class completed Monday, Castroneves agreed that people too often overlook his reason for being. “But the good news is I enjoy what I do,” said Castroneves, a winner on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval in the fall of 2004 and summer of 2006. “I believe you guys (media) already saw me…you guys have known me for a long time. That’s me. I’m an emotional person. And that’s my life. Sometimes people take it for granted just because I am the way I am. And when I’m in a race car, I’m a little bit different than just to be smiling and be nice, you know? If I have to play hard, I’ll play hard to achieve my goals. But at the end of the day, yes, racing _ that’s what I love. And it’s just so nice to be back again, especially with a great team.

“Obviously, I have to thank Team Penske for giving me great equipment. Both Roger and (Penske president) Tim Cindric stood by me for this whole time, and that’s the least what I could do for them. Again, having Ryan as well as my teammate, it’s two strong cars. Not only to be starting on the front row but to have a great chance to give another win for Roger. I’m sure we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”

Castroneves also praised Will Power, who was hired by Penske during the offseason in case Helio’s verdict went the other way, for developing his No. 3 car through testing. “It’s just awesome,” Castroneves said. “Soon as I jumped in the car, I could see the car was extremely fast and when you have situations like that you just need to execute. And I was very glad I was back in racing.”

Castroneves admitted as the trial ran its course in Miami, near his adopted home of Coral Gables, he was forced to consider every outcome.

“You know it’s hard,” said Castroneves, who finished second on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway last month in the series’ only oval race of 2009. “There was many times that I was thinking about…‘If this, if that’…and I never lost faith. Questioned (why) sometimes, but I guess I’m a human being. But at the end of the day I always thought that I would be back. The hardest thing was to think about it, if I would not be able to be back. I have to thank again the fans, here from Texas as well. They were really nice, sent me prayers, and I will never forget that.”

Asked if his life had gotten back to normal, Castroneves noted the 2009 season-opener was the first he had missed in a racing career dating to when he was 11-years-old. 

“Well, I would say ‘normal’ but better,” Castroneves said. “I thought I was a good person, but after everything and after seeing so many fans being really nice and so many people – even competitors I don’t know, I just feel I’m a better person and hopefully I can give the message to a lot of people who don’t believe in God. Hopefully, I can do that.” 

Raised a Catholic, Castroneves said the trial was not his come-to-Jesus moment.

“My family has always been very religious,” Castroneves said. “All through this ordeal, we never lost the faith. I never lost the faith. I questioned a lot about why I was going through this, but I never lost that. And speaking with a lot of people trying to answer the questions, the only answer we felt it was like we’re going to be having opportunity to be talking to you people  (media) and there’s a lot of people lost out there. And maybe if they hear and see what I went through and I’m here now, if they also have the same experience and belief…the power of prayer works. And they can go through the same way and pass through the same way, just believing. And that’s the way I feel now that I have been through this.”

Castroneves led a race-high 85 laps during last year’s Bombardier Learjet 550k before placing second to Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in an event that finished under a yellow flag. With a victory in June, Castroneves would  join former Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. as the second three-time IndyCar winner at TMS. Castroneves’ finishing average of 6.30 and 301 laps-led places him third among series drivers on the Fort Worth track.

“First, it’s always awesome to come back to a place that you succeed,” Castroneves said. ”I’ve won here twice and certainly I want to win again. What also gives you a really strong feeling is when you have a very good car, and we’ve proven that in the two ovals we’ve been so far. So I’m really excited. I’m really confident this year. I don’t know why but it seems to be tasting a little more better, a little nicer to be around the racing atmosphere.”

The Bombardier Learjet 550k Race Week will kick off Thursday, June 4, with practice and qualifying for the WinStar World Casino 400 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event as well as opening IndyCar Series practice. IndyCar Series qualifying will be held Friday, June 5, followed by the WinStar World Casino 400 race at 8 p.m. The weekend culminates Saturday with the running of “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” at 8:30 p.m. 

Tickets are available for each day by calling the TMS ticket office at (817) 215-8500 or by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 13 2009
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