Helio Castroneves proving he's not yet over the hill this season
After a disappointing 2011, Helio Castroneves is resurging with two wins in 2012
Castroneves' team had several changes -- John Erickson took over as strategist
Despite 27 wins, Castroneves has yet to win a championship in his career
Helio Castroneves is thankful the producers of ABC's Dancing with the Stars decided to bring together an all-star show of former champions this fall instead of some future season.
"I told them, 'If you guys wait to long, I won't be able to go back and dance like I did in the past,'" Castroneves said. "It will be really cool. It's another chance to prove that I'm still quick on my feet."
That's Castroneves' humor singed with sarcasm -- a shot across the bow at those who thought he had gone into the inevitable slow decline of progressing age last Izod IndyCar season. The 2011 campaign was the first in 13 years with Team Penske that he didn't win a race or finish seventh or better in the championship.
Castroneves, 37, can joke about it now. He's been resurging this season, with two wins under his belt, and is in the thick of the championship with three races remaining. The three-time Indy 500 winner is 26 points behind teammate Will Power, 19 back of Ryan Hunter-Reay and two points ahead of Scott Dixon going into the 13th race of the season, Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
"I guarantee people were thinking that I'd lost a little bit," Castroneves said. "I guarantee those people were knocking on the door. They want to be the next driver for Team Penske, which I understand. But just because I'm getting more mature it does not mean I'm necessarily slowing down. I never felt I was slowing down. I was certainly frustrated by [my performance] as well."
Castroneves' victory in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., helped shed the belief he was over the hill; he confirmed it with a second victory at Edmonton, a third-place finish at Barber Motorsports Park and five more top-seven finishes. And this weekend Castroneves could see another high finish -- he last won at Sonoma in 2008, and he finished second in '07 and '11. The IndyCar teams tested there last week, where Castroneves had a "very, very good test."
"It's been an interesting season," he explained. "It's quite a ways to come back after a very difficult year in 2011. We've been able to put ourselves in a better opportunity. We had a lot of changes within my (No. 3) group in 2010 and 2011. We some of the crew guys change, it wasn't the same people."
Change was an understatement for Castroneves' team. Penske Racing President Tim Cindric had been Castroneves' race strategist since he joined the team in 2000, but he switched to Power's car in July 2011. Race engineer Ron Ruzewski has been his race engineer since 2006, but had taken on the responsibility of Technical Director for the organization in 2010. When John Erickson took over as Castroneves' strategist, there was a transition period in both leadership roles.
"Tim Cindric and I were well connected and Ron was doing a lot, working with all three cars during the week and our car on the weekends," Castroneves said. "The fact is, we had a lot of things going wrong last year plus the mistakes that I made. I was a little too aggressive on the double-file restarts [which began in 2011]. I didn't quite like it and I still don't think it fits our [open-wheel style] or car.
"We didn't finish half the races and we lost points and opportunities to win. We had an infrastructure problem. We sat down at the end of last year and said, 'What can we do to make it happen?' It wasn't one thing, it was a lot of small, little things. I know Ron was doing a lot and he's gotten back into the game (race engineer). I'm mature enough and experienced enough to overcome things and get back in the game. We're a strong team. We have two wins and hopefully have two more and we can bring home the championship. I'm really focused on that."
IndyCar's change to the Dallara DW12, the first new chassis in a decade, also brought Castroneves' experience into play when developing the car. He also benefitted from a different braking style.
"I really liked developing it," Castroneves said. "The car was worst when it was raw -- I got my first run in January and the car was not that bad, especially in the high speed corners. Firestone built a very good tire for the high speed corners and that helped."
"We also had time to test -- not just Team Penske but everyone -- and we were able to develop so many things. When you only have the race weekend to work on the car[IndyCar had very limited testing in previous years], it's like chasing everything, like the track changing. My goal at the start of the season was to make the fewest mistakes possible, collect points, finish in top fives and win at least one race."
The previous Dallara had been built to run exclusively on ovals, and the pedals for the throttle, brake and clutch were problematic for drivers who wanted to switch to left-foot braking, which has been accepted as faster than right foot. The new car, with a hand clutch, allowed Castroneves to become a left-foot braker this season.
"The challenge of the new car certainly helped," Castroneves said. "We were starting fresh. I started braking with my left foot. I was going to do everything in my power to improve and have a successful season. The pedal position in the older car was difficult, but it's very comfortable now with the clutch in your hand. You also save that little bit of time lifting from the brake to the throttle and that helps."
Castroneves doesn't have an IndyCar championship, or any type of championship at that, in his racing career, which is unusual for a driver who has 27 Indy car wins, including six in CART Champ Car. But he wouldn't trade any of his Indy 500 wins for a championship.
"In terms of achievement, it's the race, the most prestigious, like winning a gold medal in the Olympics," Castroneves said. "I guarantee you, if you ask any gold medalist from the Olympics, none of them would trade it for a win in the world championship, which I equate to winning the series. I don't know how I'd feel about winning the championship. You'll have to ask me after Fontana."
IndyCar completes the season with a 500-mile race at Fontana on Sept. 15. Castroneves begins filming for Dancing with the Stars on Sept. 24.
"The reason I decided to do it was because of my little girl [Mikaelia]," Castroneves said. "She's only two and a half, but she will have the knowledge of what daddy can do. It will be a great experience for (girlfriend and Mikaelia's mother) Adrianna and myself. I'm at a different stage of my life and it will be fun to have them there."