Helio Castroneves – Too Little, Too Late

The last two IZOD IndyCar Series races have been won by Helio Castroneves and he currently sits third in the point standings. Most drivers would consider that a successful season, but after eleven years at Team Penske and no championship trophy to show for it – one might wonder if it will ever happen. He won at Barber Motorsports Park in April, then won twice in September. In between, he had some decent results – a second at Iowa and a third at Mid-Ohio, but he also had a stretch of some mediocre races where he either crashed or was never a factor.

Those that have been following this site know that Helio Castroneves is undoubtedly my favorite driver in the series – and has been since Gil de Ferran retired in 2003. Dario Franchitti was one of my favorites for years, but I haven’t been as big a fan ever since he joined Chip Ganassi following the 2007 season.

I will throw out my usual disclaimer that I am a longtime Team Penske fan. As a kid, I was a big fan of Mark Donohue. Rick Mears is in my top-five all-time favorites. He may actually slot in just behind AJ Foyt on my list. I liked Emerson Fittipaldi while he was driving, although he has fallen somewhat out of favor with me over time – and not just because he refused to drink the milk in 1993 (although that didn’t help).

Driving for Roger Penske doesn’t mean I’m an automatic fan, though. Kevin Cogan, Andre Ribeiro or Paul Tracy never won me over. I realize it’s blasphemous to admit, but I was never a fan of Sam Hornish either. So it’s not just because he drives a Penske car that makes me like Helio. I like his driving style and his off-track personality. It also carries a lot of weight with me that he loves the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and appreciates the history behind it. I’ve seen so many drivers come and go over the years that almost seem to scoff at those drivers who treated the Speedway with reverence. Helio gets it.

But just because I am a big fan of Helio’s, doesn’t mean that I am blind to his shortcomings. And his lack of a championship while driving for Team Penske for the past eleven years is a big shortcoming. Most drivers that don’t win championships, don’t last very long at Team Penske. Of course, winning the Indianapolis 500 gives Helio Castroneves a good bit of gravitas with The Captain. I would venture to guess that Roger Penske puts a higher premium on winning that one race than he does for the rest of each season. I would think most drivers would trade an Indy 500 victory any day of the week. I’m sure when his career is over, Tony Kanaan would prefer to have a "Baby Borg" in his trophy case instead of his 2004 championship hardware. Still, Roger Penske likes championships too – and he’s won a lot of them.

Like all teams, Team Penske has experienced its share of slumps. It’s only natural when a team has been competing for over forty years that they’ll have a few down periods. The mid to late-nineties come to mind for Team Penske. For roughly five years, the team struggled to win races – not to mention championships. Finally, Roger Penske cleaned house. Gone was his own underperforming Penske PC-27B chassis, the equally underwhelming Ilmor-Mercedes and Goodyear tires. He also parted ways with the tail-spinning Al Unser, Jr.

For 2000, Penske went with the powerful combination of the Reynard chassis, the Honda power plant and the superior Firestone tires. He also hired two promising hot shoes in Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore as drivers for the revamped team. Sadly, Moore never got the chance to drive for Roger Penske. He was fatally injured in the 1999 season finale at Fontana. Coincidentally, Carl Hogan had just announced he was shuttering his team that featured Helio Castroneves as his driver. The young Castroneves had shown promise while driving for two struggling teams in the previous two seasons – Hogan in 1999 and Gary Bettenhausen’s team the previous year. Penske decided to give him a shot.

Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves made for a great pairing. With de Ferran’s quiet demeanor and Helio’s effervescent personality, they were like Abbott & Costello (if you’re under forty – go look them up). De Ferran won the CART championship in back-to-back years in 2000 and 2001. Castroneves finished seventh and fourth respectively, but won the 2001 Indianapolis 500.

When Roger Penske moved his team to the IRL full-time in 2002, it was assumed he would win the championship every year. Things started out well, with Castroneves winning his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 – but he finished second in the championship. For the remainder of the decade, Team Penske won three more Indy 500’s bringing his total for the 2000’s up to five – but they only have one season championship for the same time period, when Sam Hornish won it in 2006.

Helio Castroneves has come close on many occasions. Along with finishing second in 2002, he also finished second in 2008. He also finished third in 2003, 2006 and will probably finish third for 2010. Helio has come close to winning the IZOD IndyCar championship on many occasions, but he can never close the deal. Like most racers, every year there seems to be one race that Helio can point to that could have determined a different outcome, if he could only do it over.

Helio has never won a championship on any level. On Steve Horne’s Indy Lights team, he lost the championship to his teammate and best friend Tony Kanaan. He finished third in the 1995 Formula three championship while driving for Paul Stewart. He has an excellent resume albeit void of championships.

Why can’t Helio win when it counts? Lately, Castroneves has had a history of strong starts and mid-to late-season fades. Driving for one of the best, if not the best, team in the paddock – his results should be better than this. The skill is there, but you can’t help but wonder if the focus is. It is his lack of a championship on his resume that leads some to say he doesn’t rank with any of the other three-time winners of the Indianapolis 500. When you look at the list that includes Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser – that’s some pretty heady company and it’s a legitimate question to wonder if Helio Castroneves deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with these legends. Winning a championship would go a long way in silencing his critics.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Helio Castroneves – Too Little, Too Late”

  1. I think it’s a unfortunate case of losing focus when it mattered most – I don’t think his raw speed is in doubt, in fact I think you could put him against most of the hardest competitors and he’ll do well.
    However there also seems to be an inability to follow through over a whole season that will always prevent him from being remembered in a higher category.
    The great nearly man of our era??

  2. Simply put, because there’s a better, more focused driver out there every year. Helio can win Indy in the Marmon wasp but you’re right, there are one or two races every year that he just doesn’t have it, usually towards midseason, that put him behind.

    This year, they were Texas and Toronto. Last year – Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Chicago (missing the season opener didn’t help).

    Other times, he’s just had bad luck in that other drivers have barely topped him in his career best season. In 08, Dixon just took more wins – simple as that. In 06, Hornish and Wheldon both managed to do it by a mere two points apiece.

    Before that, just look at the stats. Helio has a lot of seasons with a lot of top-fives and top-10s, but they’re just not enough to win championships. IndyCar simply doesn’t award enough points for a driver to do that. The consistency will always put him towards the top of the standings, but it’s never going to be enough. Maybe in NASCAR.

  3. Gene Valentine Says:

    I would agree that he seems to lose focus during the course of the season. Besides some of the lackluster finishes in mid-year, this is evidenced by little mistakes he makes during the pit stops. George, you speculated a couple of months ago (rightly so, I believe) that Helio and Briscoe needed to improve since Penske could likely go back to a two-car team next year and undoubtedly Power is going to stay. I think Helio might have sensed this as well, as he seemed to regain focus and improve his performance.

    I seriously doubt that Penske would cut Helio loose because of his consistent speed and performance at the Indy 500. That history alone is enough for Penske to retain him; besides, it is just a matter of time for Power to win a championship (if not this year). If Penske cuts back to 2 cars, I think Briscoe may be the one that is out….

    I believe Helio is good for the series due to his personality and the fact that many casual fans are aware of him (helped by his DWTS win). The series needs more personalities like his to help build the fan base.

  4. Good post, George. And truthfully, like you, I don’t know why Helio hasn’t won a championship, or if he ever will.

    Two points I’d like to throw out for discussion: The tax case and being a father.

    How much did Helio’s tax evasion case take out of him? I can certainly imagine that it drained him emotionally as well as physically. How much can be debated, but it very well might be a factor.

    Becoming a father. Chip Ganassi has a theory that being a father saps a driver of his desire to let it all hang out on the track. Some feel that is why Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan haven’t been as competitive this year as in years past. Helio also became a father last year I believe. Is that a factor? I don’t know, but it could be. I’d like to hear what others think of those as factors for Helio’s inability to close the deal recently, although those factors have no bearing on not winning a championship in the years before the two series became one.

  5. Helio will win a championship and he will be a 4 time and possibley 5 time indy 500 winner. I think that it’s his girlfriend Adriana that has damaged his racing this year. He must focus on racing rather than other things.

  6. Oh and forgot Edmonton was legally stolen from him.

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