Filling a Leadership Void

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Last Thursday afternoon, most IndyCar fans were caught off guard with the news that Arrow McLaren SP rookie driver Oliver Askew was withdrawing from this weekend’s Harvest Grand Prix at IMS. Following the race at Mid-Ohio, Askew said he was having balance and coordination issues. Throughout the weekend, it was reported that this was the result of his hard crash into the pit entrance attenuator, during last month’s Indianapolis 500. If you saw the crash, it’s certainly believable that he would still be dealing with the after-effects more than a month later.

As big a shock as that was, his replacement was an even bigger surprise. Helio Castroneves will step into the cockpit of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy for both races of the IMS double-header this weekend. It will be the first time for him to drive in an IndyCar race for a team other than Team Penske, since he drove for the late Carl Hogan at the ill-fated Fontana race in 1999.

It’s hard to put into perspective how long ago that was. Bill Clinton was still in the White House and Kenny Bräck was the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion. Our biggest fear was Y2K, because we had been led to believe that it would create a digital Armageddon. Regis Philbin was hosting the latest prime-time television phenomenon, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And the internet was still in it’s infancy to the point that most of us still had dial-up. Remember AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy?

Greg Moore and Gil de Ferran were already signed to Marlboro Team Penske for the 2000 season. Penske was doing an overhaul of his team, which was actually struggling at the time. Al Unser, Jr. was out as driver, in favor of these two. Penske also ditched his own Penske chassis in favor of the proven Reynard. Mercedes-Benz was pulling out, as was Goodyear, so Penske went with Honda and Firestone. The on-track version of Marlboro Team Penske for 2000, would look a lot different than it did in 1999.

Unfortunately, Greg Moore was fatally injured in the 1999 CART season-finale at Fontana and he never drove for The Captain. Helio Castroneves was out of a ride, because his team folded after Fontana. He had looked promising in his two years in CART, driving for Hogan and Tony Bettenhausen. He was hastily signed by Team Penske, just a matter of days after Moore’s death. Perhaps a little too hastily, because they used the same contract that Moore had signed – they just changed the name and Helio signed it. That was one of the many factors that led to Helio’s tax scandal in the fall of 2008, but that’s a whole other story.

Gil de Ferran was the calm veteran, while Helio Castroneves was the excitable young driver. The two Brazilian drivers formed a bond and a friendship like few teammates do. The off-track friendship provided outstanding results on the track, as well. Gil de Ferran won the 2000 and 2001 CART championship, while Helio earned his first career victory just seven races into his tenure with Penske. Castroneves then went on to win the 2001 and 2002 Indianapolis 500. In what would ultimately be his final IndyCar season, de Ferran won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and Castroneves finished second.

By this time, Marlboro Team Penske had already made their transition from CART to the IRL After winning the 2000-01 CART crown, Penske moved his entire team to the IRL in 2002. The following year, most of the major CART teams followed, with the exception of Newman/Haas.

Why the ancient history lesson? Because there’s a link from what transpired twenty years ago to what will happen this weekend.

I mentioned that Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves cemented a lasting friendship during the four years the two countrymen drove together for The Captain. That relationship is still strong today. Can you guess who one of the three principals at Arrow McLaren SP is? Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson are two of them. The third is Gil de Ferran.

Even before Askew withdrew, there had already been speculation that Arrow McLaren SP would expand to a third car for 2021. Furthermore, Helio Castroneves was one of the names linked to a possible third car.

Since the end of the 2017 season, Helio Castroneves had been relegated to Month of May-only status for Team Penske’s IndyCar program. He and former teammate Juan Montoya had been sent out to pasture at Penske’s sports car program at Acura Team Penske; but both drivers saw that as an unwanted consolation prize. They both wanted to drive in IndyCar. But the sports car program was a pretty good gig for drivers in their mid-forties.

Helio’s results as a part-time IndyCar driver were unimpressive. In 2017, his last fulltime season – Helio finished fifth in the IMS Grand Prix and second in the Indianapolis 500. In 2019, the last year to do both – he finished twenty-first in the Grand Prix and eighteenth in the “500”. Last month, in what many consider to be his last IndyCar race at Team Penske – Castroneves had his best Indianapolis 500 finish as a part-time driver, when he finished eleventh.

When Helio Castroneves crawls into a McLaren car this weekend, I don’t think this is purely as a substitute driver. I think this is an audition for a third car at McLaren for 2021. In fact, I think it is Helio’s job to lose. I think about the only way Castroneves does not get that ride for next season is if he shows he is no longer competitive in an Indy car on a non-oval, or if he simply cannot get along with the team.

Gil de Ferran is a smart man. He knows what he is getting in Helio Castroneves and sees that this could fill a leadership void. They were Penske teammates for four years while de Ferran was in the mentor role, and Castroneves was the student. I think de Ferran realizes that over the course of a long season, he needs an experienced driver who has tasted success to mentor his two young drivers. Pato O’Ward has shown flashes of brilliance as he is about to complete his first fulltime IndyCar season, while currently sitting third in points. He has proven that Arrow McLaren SP is capable of providing a fast race car, but he has also shown glimpses that he is also a young and inexperienced driver that can still make rookie mistakes.

I think Oliver Askew will eventually be an outstanding driver, but he is a true rookie and with that comes rookie mistakes. He has a very technical approach to his racing, much like Gil de Ferran. O’Ward is a more instinctive and excitable driver, much like Helio Castroneves. Both young drivers have the potential to really compliment each other in the years ahead, but they both need some seasoning.

I think de Ferran has realized that the best way to develop his two young drivers is to add a very seasoned driver to the mix. It has been seventeen years since de Ferran last stepped out of an Indy car. O’Ward was four and Askew was seven. de Ferran could probably tell both drivers exactly what to do in certain instances, but they may not actually hear it. Since Helio Castroneves is still considered current, he could tell them the exact same thing and they could relate to it a lot more, even though de Ferran is only seven and a half years older than Helio. When you are twenty-one like O’Ward, seven years may as well be thirty.

Some suspect that Helio Castroneves is washed up, while others claim he never had much talent to begin with – that he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Many pray that he never wins that elusive fourth Indianapolis 500, because they don’t consider him worthy of even being mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Foyt, Unser and Mears.

It probably won’t surprise you that I disagree. In my opinion, Helio Castroneves has proven his ability to adapt. He won in CART, winning six races over two years before his team switched over to the IRL. The first time he sat in an IRL car, he won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. His first full season in the IRL, he finished second in the points to Sam Hornish, but still managed to win his second straight Indianapolis 500, albeit under some controversy. The knock on Helio has been that he never won a championship. While that is true, in his eighteen fulltime seasons with Team Penske – Helio finished fourth or better thirteen times, while finishing second in points four of those times.

Since this current car entered the NTT IndyCar Series in 2012, Helio’s six respective fulltime finishes in points were fourth, second, second, fifth, third and fourth. There were also two very close second place finishes in the Indianapolis 500 in those years – the most recent in his last fulltime season in 2017.

Even though his heart was still in the IndyCar program, Helio has seen success in Team Penske’s Acura sports car program. After this past weekend at Mid-Ohio, he and teammate Ricky Taylor are now riding a three-race winning streak. With that team going away at the end of the season and his three-year Indy-only contract now up, Helio Castroneves is now a free-agent. He has made it clear to anyone that will listen that he wants a fulltime ride in IndyCar. I think Gil de Ferran has heard him.

Helio Castroneves still has the goods. Most importantly, he still has the desire. I’m convinced that drivers in their forties don’t see their skills diminish that much. Reaction time may not be what it was earlier, but experience can make up for that. Instead, I think some drivers in their forties don’t have quite the desire to push a car toward the edge that they had in their twenties. Having a wife, kids and responsibilities can do that. Chip Ganassi once said that he never saw having children make a driver go faster. That was before Scott Dixon and Emma started having children. Now Dixon is forty and a father of three, yet he shows no signs of slowing down as he is headed for a likely sixth championship.

I think Helio Castroneves has the same desire as Dixon, yet they channel it in totally different ways. Scott Dixon is the Ice Man and always keeps his emotions in check. Castroneves wears his emotions on his sleeve, but that emotion is what has driven him over the years.

It will look odd to see Helio Castroneves crawl into a papaya orange McLaren car this weekend, and not in any of the Penske liveries he has carried over the years. But I think his experience and his adaptability will serve his well in his substitute role. Do I predict a Castroneves win in either of the two races in the Harvest Grand Prix at IMS? No, but I do think he will be competitive and give more than a solid performance. He is driven to prove that he can still wheel an Indy car competitively. I think he will prove his doubters wrong…again.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Filling a Leadership Void”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I still think Helio has the desire and talent to go fast. The reason I don’t put him in the same class with Al Unser, Foyt and Mears is that he really hasn’t won 3 Indy 500’s. He was given his 2nd one because of the split. Paul Tracy won that race, not Helio. So I don’t want want him to win another Indy 500 and falsely be put in the same exalted category as those three legends. Other than that I hope he does great for them.

  2. I do agree that a vet there at SPAM would be great, but man I am so tired of Helio and Tony Kanaan being out there in slow cars, it’s tiring to watch!

    This is the shot though, that team can compete and Helio is a veteran so if they aren’t in the top ten, then I think Helio is washed up. Consider me in the group who never cared for Castroneves, always seemed fake and sleazy to me to be honest, a car salesman type of guy with a fake smile. But I am glad he will get this chance to prove if he has it still or doesn’t. If he doesn’t I hope it’s the last we see of him, quite honestly.

  3. Leslie Bissell Says:

    Thanks George! I am a pretty big fan of Helio and I definitely learned some interesting things from you today. I hope your predictions come true! I think Helio can make a solid contribution ti the McLaren team.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I would agree that AMSP is interested in Castroneves for next year. I am not sure, however, if they would choose him over one of the potential F1 refugees that are reportedly available. That said, I think it is more likely that Castroneves will get a third seat at the team than one of those F1 refugees.

    Not to be too persnickety… but it was Spencer Pigot who hit the attenuator at Indy. Askew wrecked hard into the inside wall near pit entry while trying losing it in the tire smoke of Conor Daly’s spinning car on a mid-race restart. Nasty hit, I can see why he might not be 100% even now.

  5. Victor A Lovisa Says:

    Great post today George. Admittedly, I’m a longtime Castroneves fan, so perhaps I’m a bit bias.

    When I read the ‘Helio in for Askew’ story on Racer.com I was floored by some of the reader comments. It’s one thing that some were saying Helio is washed up. To each their own. But I couldn’t believe the amount of comments from people alluding to Helio never being that good to begin with, suggesting he’s always been overrated.

    For those who say he was lucky at the ‘500’ because his first win came against crappy old IRL competition and his second was the Paul Tracy screw job, then what about the other win and the three 2nd place finishes? Those didn’t happen against the old IRL guard.

    What about the 29 career Indycar wins? Just Luck? Ovals. Street circuits. Road courses. Only happened because he raced for Penske? Please. I’d like to think Roger Penske’s a pretty good judge of driver talent. You telling me The Captain keeps this guy around for 21 seasons between Indycar and IMSA if he didn’t think Helio was the real deal?

    The thought crossed my mind that maybe some folks don’t like him because they think he’s fake. After all, who could be so jovial all the time? Gotta just be for the cameras right? I can only speak for my own interactions with him, but when my wife and I ran into him in Las Vegas during our honeymoon years ago, he couldn’t have been nicer. No microphones. No tv cameras. Same Helio. Same deal the few times I’ve talked to him in the paddock at Detroit. All smiles. Friendly as can be.

    Anyway, there’s my HCN fan club rant. I hope he gets a shot next year with Arrow. Hoping he can make us fellow 45-year-olds look good out there!!!

    • FYI go back and look at that 2001 Indy 500 field. It was pretty stacked with talent. Some of the better names in reverse finishing order: Sharp, Goodyear, Unser Jr., Cheever, Ward, Lazier, Gordon, Ray, Hornish, Luyendyk, Giaffone, Salazar, Stewart, Junqueira, Vasser, Andretti, De Ferran, and of course Helio. Obviously not the best field in 500 history, but plenty accomplished to dissuade the “crappy IRL” narrative.

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