Helio Needs To Let It Go

Those that follow this site know what a fan of Team Penske I am. I was at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, when Roger Penske made his debut as a car-owner with Mark Donohue as his driver. There was just something about that beautiful blue and yellow Sunoco Special that caught my eye. It was not lost on this ten year-old kid that Donohue was one of the very few college graduates in the field – holding an engineering degree from Brown University. I was also there in 1972, cheering Donohue and Roger Penske on to their first Indianapolis 500 win.

Roger Penske has since added fourteen more Indianapolis 500 victories to his resume. Four of those were earned by Rick Mears; another of my all-time favorites. The Team Penske driver that ranks just behind Mears with Indianapolis 500 victories as well as tenure with the team is current driver Helio Castroneves. Helio brought three victories to the team at the famed oval that Roger Penske cherishes so much. He is in the process of wrapping up his twelfth season driving for The Captain, while Rick Mears drove for fifteen straight seasons for Team Penske (1978 to 1992).

Followers of this site also know that of all the current drivers in the series, Helio is my favorite – but my loyalty is not blind. Helio’s emotions have been getting the best of him lately and it’s hard to defend some of his recent actions. The 2009 season was a series of high and lows for the popular Brazilian driver. After a grueling tax evasion trial that many predicted would find Helio behind bars, he joined his team in the second race of the season at Long Beach. Six weeks later, he was winning his third Indianapolis 500. Soon afterwards, his 2009 season slowly went into the tank. It was understandable and I think most that follow the series allowed him to drive in obscurity for the rest of the season.

The following year, he began the season with a ninth at São Paulo, a fourth at St. Petersburg and a win at Barber in Birmingham. But in mid-season, he went into a slump that culminated with his well-publicized meltdown at Edmonton. To his credit, he did finish the season with two wins and a fourth place finish in the points, setting expectations for 2011.

The first turn of this season saw Helio make a foolish banzai move that took out several cars, including that of his teammate, Ryan Briscoe. Helio finished twentieth in that race at St. Petersburg and followed that with a seventh place finish at Barber. At Long Beach, Castroneves collided with teammate Will Power on a re-start. Helio finished twelfth there and after another collision in the rain at São Paulo, finished twenty-first. For the first time in my memory, Helio Castroneves was a non-factor the entire month of May at Indianapolis. He qualified a very quiet sixteenth and drove silently to a forgettable seventeenth place finish, as all of Team Penske experienced a May to forget.

With the help of a couple of second-place finishes, Castroneves has improved his season in the latter half as he barely sits inside the top-ten in points. But he continues to struggle with results while his teammate, Will Power, leads the championship. Last week, he lost a lot of supporters (including me) when he took to Twitter to attack Brian Barnhart for the penalty he assessed Helio at Motegi, when Helio passed JR Hildebrand under a local yellow on the last lap. Since it was the last lap, Barnhart couldn’t assess a drive-through penalty, so Helio was sent to the end of the line of cars on the lead lap – which resulted in Helio being dropped from seventh to twenty-second.

Most know that I am not a Brian Barnhart supporter. I have criticized almost every move he has made since I started this site, but to be fair – I think Barnhart made the right call this time. There are a lot of gray areas that require black & white logic in racing. This isn’t one of them. Helio blatantly passed in a turn where a local yellow flag can be clearly seen waving. Castroneves claims that he should have been dropped back down to eighth, as if it never happened. I agree with Barnhart’s analogy of a bank robber: if the bank robber gets caught, he doesn’t just give the money back and everything is OK – he is punished.

Helio immediately went to Twitter to criticize Barnhart and referred to him as a “circus clown”. Later in the week, Castroneves wrote an article in a Brazilian newspaper where he further criticized the Chief Steward.

As Paul Tracy pointed out, when Tracy used the term “circus clown” to describe Champ Car Chief Steward Chris Kneifel, it was during a TV interview immediately during the heat of the moment. Helio had time to cool off and collect his thoughts before typing out the same term of endearment on Twitter. Furthermore, he had several days to look at the tape and re-think the entire situation before writing his article where he criticized Barnhart and said he was ruining the series single-handedly among other niceties. My question is; Why? What’s the point?

As parents, we’re always taught to pick our battles with our unruly teenagers. I would suggest Helio do the same. Helio probably still holds a grudge from Belle Isle in 2008, when Barnhart accused Helio of blocking Justin Wilson and ordered Castroneves to move over and allow Wilson to lead and go on to win the race. Then, there was the controversy in 2010 at Edmonton. None of us seemed to know or understand the ridiculous rule where a driver cannot defend his or her line by hugging the inside of the turn. Apparently most of the drivers knew it, though. As silly as it seemed at the time, Barnhart was just enforcing the rule. When the series returned to Edmonton this season, Helio smiled as he referred to himself as the defending champion of the event. It was seemingly a joke, but Helio was still getting in that jab.

Now Helio has taken separate jabs at Barnhart in print. I’ll be curious to see how Randy Bernard handles this. A hefty fine should be in order. If sponsors and fans weren’t involved, a suspension would be appropriate as well. Public criticism of officials in any sport is always subject to fines and/or suspensions. INDYCAR should be no different.

Although he hasn’t asked for it, I’ll offer up my advice to Helio, anyway: Let it go.

Yes, Barnhart’s tenure as Chief Steward has been rife with inconsistencies, but this accomplishes nothing. I’m sure Randy Bernard will make the proper call on the Chief Steward’s position in due time during the offseason. I’m of the opinion that drivers don’t need to be the ones calling for the Chief Steward’s head. Besides – on this one, Castroneves was clearly guilty as charged.

In a time where Helio’s tenure at Team Penske may be in jeopardy, Helio needs to shut his mouth and focus on the remaining two races to see if he can prevent going winless in a season for the first time since he joined Team Penske in 2000. As he continues his pointless feud with Barnhart, he is losing longtime fans that have supported him. No longer is he coming across as the fun-loving teammate to the surly Sam Hornish or the studious Gil de Ferran. He now appears to be an aging athlete who is desperately lashing out at everything and everyone as his career is winding down.

It’s not a pretty picture that Helio is leaving for fans to remember his legacy. For years, Brett Favre treated football fans with incredible feats as he played like a kid who loved the game. Unfortunately, ten years from now – Favre will still be remembered for his last three drama-filled seasons with the Jets and Vikings that left images of an old man linked to a sex scandal, who held his teams hostage during training camp in order to make them beg him to come back. Fortunately, this season – they stopped begging.

Helio should be remembered as a good driver, who always performed – especially on the stage at Indianapolis. Sadly, he is to the point where he will probably never win a championship. I don’t know if he will drive for Team Penske beyond this season or not. Personally, I hope he does. But whether he is at Team Penske in 2012, at another team or retired – I hope that Helio can let go of this feud with Brian Barnhart, remember his legacy and regain some of the dignity he has lost in the last couple of years.

George Phillips

18 Responses to “Helio Needs To Let It Go”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I must admit that personally I could care less if HCN melts down, but since HCN “was” one of the few positive personalities that this series had, as a fan of Indy Car I am disappointed…
    I also believe that BB moving HCN to P15 may have been somewhat extreme for a one position pass under yellow. Was passing under yellow dim witted, yes. But to use the bank robbers penalty analogy. While it is true that once caught, one does not simply get to give the money back, the penalty usually includes some amount of jail time, not the electric chair, or hangmans noose.
    Perhaps loosing a position or two would have been a more even handed penalty in this case… But lets face it, even handedness and consistency have not exactly been race controls strong suit for this or the past season or three…

  2. Frankly, I am really, really tired of hearing about Brian Barnhart period, whether it is from Helio or any other driver or fan, but particularly from Robin Miller. I have been around the sport long enough to remember that over the years drivers and others have always complained about the Chief Steward and/or Race Control. The difference now………………..Twits, bloggers, 24/7 news cycle, talk radio, etc. Every little thing about the sport is just being analyized to death every day all the time. If Mr. Barnhart is replaced all the “nattering nabobs of negativity” will just lock on to some other issue.

    • George, as a devoted Packer fan I can tell you that your comments about Bret Favre are spot on. He has really tarnished his legacy and Helio is beginning to do the same. I’m not sure that Robin Miller ever had a legacy, but his obsession with BB is sad.

      • I agree that Helio didn’t have a leg to stand on when complaining about his illegal pass and should therefore have kept quiet rather than tarnish his jovial, fan-friendly, sponsor-friendly image and Team Penske’s. And Robin should lean more toward impartial journalism than angry activism.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      I think that if the overall dissatisfaction with the quality of racing in general, coupled with the need for a stem to stern overhaul of the series was not already so urgent, that much less attention would be paid to what BB is or is not doing… So, while I would not want to let BB entirely off the hook, there is no question that he has become the fan, blogger and pundit scapegoat for the disatisfaction with the league that many apparently feel. Personally, I do not always agree with Robin Miller, but think that he brings a great 40 years of racing perspective to the table and it’s not always what everyone else is thinking or saying and he is often correct with the information he provides and the stories that he breaks.

  3. Last week or so, in response to your column as to the future of Helio or Ryan Brisco at Penske, I was inclined to think Penske would keep Helio because of his past record at Indianapolis. Now I am not so sure. I don’t think Penske appreciates any of his drivers focusing on anything but racing–at least during the season, so I am skeptical as to how he is reacting to this latest rant by Castroneves. I would not be at all surprised to see Roger dump both and add a younger, “hungrier’ driver instead. I’m disappointed in Castroneves, because he is(was) a fan favorite for the sport, was always good for an interview, and generally promoted IndyCar in the potential fan base.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      “Dump both and go younger”… I said exactly that last week, only in a somewhat more kinder gentler fashion…

    • Could very well be that Roger will ditch both Helio and…Kurt Busch. Both have become primadonna to the extreme. Not sure about Briscoe being jettisoned yet. I said the same thing last week too (sans the Busch part). I’m certain of one thing – Roger is weary of all the negative hoopla surrounding his drivers. He won’t suffer fools for long.

    • “a younger, “hungrier’ driver” like Hinchcliffe and Hildebrand!

      • Oh, my below comment notwithstanding, were J.R. not under contract (I think, anyway) for next year with Panther, and if Hinch (who I think is a potential superduperstar, and the type of personality than can even cross over into mainstream sports and entertainment media) had even one more year of seasoning, both would be good choices. Under the exact set of circumstances that we’re looking at right now, I think Roger’ll go for a more experienced hand, and probably one of the guys who currently drives one of his cars. At least that’s good for two other teams in the paddock, whoever J.R. and Hinch do drive for.

  4. Maybe the headline of the topic should be “Helio is let go” by Penske instead of “Helio should let it go”.

    Nothing would surprise any more, if it did happen. Mistake after mistake in race after race,yet Helio gets somewhat of a “bye” with his driving style.Who really is “the Circus Clown” here?

    I respect Roger Penske.He does not qualify for Indy,he packs up and leaves without any complaints, other than his team did not get it done. Pure class by a dominant figure in Open Wheel Racing. Yet I believe even the Captain has given Helio the “bye”, for now, until Bozo himself, makes yet his final mistake, and it will be sooner than later.

  5. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Barnhart needs to go.

    As long as the sponsors want Helio, he’ll probably remain at Penske for 2012.

    Also, if Roger dumps Helio for his actions and rants in recent years then he needs to dump Kurt Busch from his NASCAR team because Kurt acts the same way (even more than Helio).

  6. George, I was rethinking my take after making our video blog that Helio and Ryan would be released after this year because you made such a strong case for Penske keeping Helio. But I now believe even more that they will both get their walking papers. Penske gets two new cars and a new driver to the team to go along with Will. I have no doubt that when you give Will a good Penske car and a pit crew that will put the wheels on securely he can win the 500.

  7. I still don’t believe that one horrific season should determine whether or not to keep a driver with the kind of previous success that Helio has had.

    Also, it seems to me like the sponsors still like him. With Danica gone, it’s very possible that some sponsors will want to be endorsed by the second most recognizable driver in the INDYCAR Series.

  8. If it were me, I’d be letting Helio go and keeping Briscoe for another year. Helio does give Roger a marginally better chance than Briscoe at winning exactly one race every year. It helps Helio’s case that that one race is the Indy 500, but I’m not all that convinced at this point that Briscoe is far behind Helio even at The Speedway (Briscoe did, after all, finish 5th there in a semi-Penske car only a few years ago, and did run at or above Helio’s pace all month this May). Meanwhile, Briscoe is more consistently quick at the road and street courses, of which the Series is seeing more and more join the schedule. Curt Cavin likes to point out that Briscoe has been punted out of races like three times this year. If you take away those three punts and simply give Ryan 10th place points for each of those races, I think he’s in an easy 5th place in the championship, which while not great, certainly destroys Helio’s current 10th in the championship (where most of Helio’s woes have been self-inflicted).

    Then, after 2012 is up, Roger could see if Briscoe’s benefitted from the change to the Team Australia format, and if not, farm him back out to a sports car squad, should Roger get the contract to run Porsche’s LMP car. I’m not Tim Cindric, but if I were, this would be the stuff I’d be putting in Roger’s ear right about now.

    • Risking redundancy, I agree (as previously stated). Briscoe has a longer future, has matured and is the better prospect for the long haul. Also as previously stated, when the resources are focused on two cars instead of three, and without the ballyhoo that surrounds Helio on a semi-regular basis, I think Ryan may thrive in that environment and would again start rising to his potential.
      A driver in a situation of possible loss-of-ride due to downsizing is going to be cautious about how close to the edge he runs at every race. When it’s time to downsize, the one who’s walling/wadding the most equipment is likely going to be the one on the outside looking in. Ryan has been the victim a few times this year. Helio has been the perp in two instances that took out his own teammate. With the longevity aspect taken into consideration, I see Briscoe staying. The emphasis on wins at the Speedway is the only possible saving grace I see for HCN.

  9. I agree with HCN! I would love to tell my worthless boss the business!

    Let’s face it, this series is in the tank! Why not have some personality! Fining drivers for speech is what killed NASCAR and as you can see the fans are not coming back!

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