IndyCar driving star Castroneves living out the dreams of his father
Hélio Castroneves Sr. says he never intended to turn his son into a famous racecar driver, as he himself had dreamed of being. He just wanted to throw the boy an unforgettable first birthday party. So he bought a cake festooned with sparkling silver icing and crowned it with a palm-tree-lined toy racetrack he had borrowed from a local shop.
That decorative touch foretold little Hélio's lifelong passion for driving, which would propel him to victory in 18 professional races, including the 2001 and '02 Indianapolis 500s, and -- as driver of the No. 3 car for Team Penske -- an IndyCar record seven poles in '07. A checkered flag at the Brickyard this Sunday would make him the first non-American to conquer Indy three times. "I want to win it more than anything," he says. What's more, "It's an experience I could give my dad."
Racing and music were the twin passions of the Castroneves family during Hélio Sr.'s youth, in southern Brazil in the 1960s and '70s. While his cousin Oscar was developing into an accomplished jazz guitarist who would one day help create the bossa nova sound, Hélio Sr. favored the sonorous note of exhaust -- so much so that he once traveled with his brother to the São Paulo racetrack Interlagos to turn laps in a street car. But Hélio Sr. didn't have the money to finance a driving career, so he decided to work and save toward building his own team. He sold cars in São Paulo and then industrial piping in Ribeirão Preto, an agribusiness hub about 200 miles to the northwest.
By 1980 Hélio Sr. had earned enough to launch a small stock-car team. Hélio Jr. was born in '75, and by the time he was five his dad was stashing the boy -- outfitted in a bespoke fire suit and matching helmet -- in the trunk of his car and smuggling him onto pit lane. By age 10 little Hélio was turning laps at a go-kart track in São Paulo where many of the Brazilian racers he idolized, such as the Formula One star Ayrton Senna, had honed their craft. A year later he joined a national go-kart series and won rookie of the year honors. Soon after that he told his family that he intended to pursue his father's unrealized dream.
The career choice shook his mother, Sandra, who had labored to keep her son engaged in school and to spark his interest in safer sports. ("She would sign me up for swimming, soccer or judo," Hélio recalls, "and I'd only last a week.") But Hélio Sr. was determined to give his son the backing he himself had never had. "When Hélio told me he really wanted to be a racecar driver, I felt obligated to do everything that I could to help," he says.
With teams at the Kart, Formula Vauxhall and Formula 3 formative levels all demanding $200,000 to sign his talented but unsponsored son, Hélio Sr. launched his own series of ragtag teams. In '93 he formed an F/3 team that consisted essentially of his 18-year-old son and a five-year-old, $60,000 battlewagon held together by duct tape and emblazoned with a giant white question mark -- an artful plea for sponsorship. With no money left over for a radio communication system, Hélio Sr. relayed instructions to his boy by writing on placards attached to a length of pipe that stretched from the pit to the track wall.
After the car broke in half in a disastrous early-season qualifying run, Hélio Sr. got an airline mechanic to put it back together. In his refurbished ride, Hélio stalked the points lead with three races to go -- then his beater broke down again. A rival team offered to fully sponsor him for the remainder of the season, but Hélio resisted out of loyalty to his father, but he ultimately exhorted him to "cut the umbilical cord." With his new team Hélio drove to victory in the season finale, but fell short of winning the points race.
As the demands of racing pulled Hélio away from home, he became, ironically, more dependent on his family. When he moved to England in '95 to drive for the Paul Stewart Racing in British F/3, his mother accompanied him his first three months, and his father flew in from Brazil on race weekends once a month.
When Hélio's sponsorship money dried up midseason, his father sold his business assets and private property -- including the São Paulo apartment where Hélio's sister, Kati, lived as she pursued an MBA and her own dream career as a ballerina. She had no qualms about having to find a roommate and solicit sponsorship money for her little brother from her marketing professors. "We always thought the four of us were going to make it somehow," says Kati, who is now Hélio's business manager. And even if Hélio had not succeeded as a driver, his father says, "Our efforts would have never been in vain, because he is my son."