With the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 this Sunday, May 29, there’s one driver in particular with a chance to make history. Team Penske star Helio Castroneves has three Indy wins, more than any active driver, and a fourth will tie him for the all-time mark alongside A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears.
Castroneves, who turned 41 on May 10, has been an Indy car racing staple for almost 20 years, having debuted in the old CART World Series in 1998 with the Bettenhausen team. He then joined Hogan Racing for 1999 before joining Team Penske in 2000—where he has remained ever since, longer than any Penske driver over the years. We caught up with him ahead of his latest chance at the Speedway.
Automobile: It’s almost time …
Helio Castroneves: The biggest race of the—is it right to say century, I guess? Really excited to be part of history, to be in this race, because I don’t think I’m going to be here for the next 100, so it’s going to be interesting to see.
AM: It’s almost unbelievable to say this is your 15th start at Indy, your 19th season in Indy car racing between CART and IndyCar, and your 17th season at Team Penske, more than any other driver Roger Penske has had. I feel like I’ve been asking you questions forever, for the past however many years it’s been. How did the time rip by so quickly?
HC: I tell you what. It is amazing. Still feels like it was yesterday [we began] this partnership with Team Penske. It’s something I always dreamed of, and I’m so honored to be part of this organization. And you know, we have the same goals. It’s like a long marriage and it’s still going. You want to win races, win championships, and win the Indy 500. Now I have Roger on my radio the last three years, which has been fantastic. And, for me, when you put those goals together, we for sure want to achieve the ultimate. And I have to say, I have three other teammates: Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud. Those guys are incredible talents. For me to be part of this dream team is just a privilege.
AM: How do you describe yourself at this point?
HC: I would say like a fine wine (laughs). That’s how I describe my driving, it’s been getting better with age. I’ve been learning a lot, like I said, with not only my teammates but with the other competitors, and you keep going. You keep the desire, you keep the fire inside you, and every time you go onto the track you try to find the best. It’s like a puzzle; it’s one of those things that you keep looking for. And when you solve those puzzles, it’s a thrill. Myself with my engineer, it’s just awesome.
I feel, I dunno, but I imagine like a successful businessperson when they close a deal. When you make it happen and you move on to the next. It’s the same to me. It’s like when you find the result—well not a result because a result is part of the work you do before—but when you’re able to identify those issues and make it happen and work, oh man, it’s a thrill. Every time I go to the racetrack it’s this way. I say, “What’s next? What can we make better?” So when you have that, I mean, it just keeps going. For me, that’s the way to go, to just keep going.
AM: It’s worth noting that you’ve been so strong and consistent in a team with, as you mentioned, seriously talented teammates. The team isn’t focused solely on you, and those guys are also some of the best drivers in the world, and you’re all in what is arguably the world’s most competitive championship. How much easier or more difficult is it to have to race guys like that? Guys who have the same equipment and team support as you do?
HC: It’s 50-50, because you know that what you’ve got [working on your car] is going to benefit them [because we share all the info]. But what they have is going to benefit you. We push each other. We really, really work together trying to find the best way for the result, not only for ourselves but for Team Penske. And when we achieve that, we know that between our teammates we have a high probability that we’re going to beat everyone else. So it’s one of those scenarios we know that we would push the limit. Not saying the other [competitors] are not, but with the caliber of talent that we have in our group, it’s pretty special, and that’s why it works.
AM: One day you’re going to be done driving, whenever it comes. Do you have a vision of what you’ll do? A role at Team Penske? Maybe similar to Rick Mears at Penske, who consults with you and the drivers and with the team in general?
HC: You know, that’s a great question. In fact, I don’t know. I like racing so much. I like to be in the race car; I like to be driving. I’m not sure if I’d be a driver coach or a team owner; I’m not sure if I’d be a good spotter [for another driver]. I don’t know.
It’s, uh, like I said, I don’t think—it’s probably one of the reasons I still enjoy a lot what I do. Because if you start searching—and I’m not—people say, what would you do? I don’t know. Several people, Gil de Ferran, a good friend of mine—when he retired from IndyCar, I’m like, “Why did you do that?” And I asked Rick the same question—this was many years ago. I asked, “How can you guys stop driving?” They said, “Well, I don’t feel anymore the desire.” And that’s where probably I’m different than those guys. I don’t feel the desire to not go to the racetrack, especially now that we have a short season. So it’s kind of like at the end of the season, everybody’s like, oh, I need a little break. It’s like you recharge batteries, but then I can’t wait to come back. I’m like, come on, it’s too long of an offseason! So that’s probably why I don’t know what I’m gonna do, so I can only wait until that time comes.
AM: Speaking of Rick Mears, this year you’re back in the “Yellow Submarine” Pennzoil car. Mears won two Indy 500s with that same livery. You used it once before, a couple of years ago. Was there any way another Team Penske driver was going to get to drive that car?
HC: You know, the relationship we have with Pennzoil and Shell, it’s an honor to be wearing the colors, not only the Shell colors but this year with the Pennzoil colors, because it’s an iconic color [scheme]. Everyone who has the opportunity to wear the brand, Shell or Pennzoil, it’s part of the tradition, not only at the Indianapolis 500 but also in racing in general. I have to thank them for bringing it back again. We had it in 2014 and almost won it, and now we have another chance, so it’s great.
What was just as great was bringing back not only the “Yellow Submarine” but [the term] the “Yelio Submarine” [a mash-up of “Yellow” and “Helio”] (laughs). I thought that was pretty creative, and I really, really like it. It’s great when you have this kind of company not only supporting racing but being associated with Team Penske. I’m going to do everything I can to make that beautiful “Yelio Submarine” bright as can be, so we can shine in Victory Circle.
AM: You’ve won a lot of races, poles, and finished second in the championship four times. I know what you’re going to say, but can you compare the desire to finally win the championship versus winning another Indy 500? If I told you right now you could win Indy one more time or win two championships before you retire—and obviously you’d still have won Indy three times …
HC: There is not a doubt in my mind, being part of history would be incredible. Winning a fourth Indy 500 would mean more than anything else you can combine, to be honest. Obviously as a driver I want to win a championship—don’t get me wrong—but I would not trade a championship for an Indy 500. Nooooo way. Trust me, this is like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and you want to win as bad as anybody.
AM: Do you ever reflect when you get away from IndyCar racing—be it during the offseason or some other downtime—do you still dream about other goals in motorsports?
HC: Yeah, I’d love to. We’ve been close. To win the Daytona 24, that’s something I would love to have in the collection. We’ve been close. Sebring as well. The 12 Hours, that would be super cool as well. One day maybe Le Mans will be as well. There is more, man. There is a lot. We won Petit Le Mans once [in 2008], so checked that off the list. But for sure there is more. Like I said, I have a lot of goals, man. Trust me. Hopefully we can accomplish those goals, but the main one right now is the Indy 500.
AM: What’s the most difficult thing at Indy during the race?
HC: The hardest thing is you gotta push it, you gotta be aggressive enough, but you gotta remember, it’s 500 miles. You want to be tough but calculated, aggressive but not stupid. You gotta put yourself on that fine line so you can keep going without missing opportunities to be fighting for a possible win at the end.
That’s the hardest thing to balance. People don’t see it. They say, “Aw, man, you just let a guy by.” Well, that might be the better strategy. Things like that, people don’t realize. And we’re busy inside the car. Even though on the onboard camera it just looks like turning left, straight, turning left, straight—whoo, there is a lot going on with the throttle and the timing of everything you’re doing.
AM: How often, even after all these years, do you still get scared inside the car there?
HC: Oh, you’re always scared, man (laughs). You’re always scared—well, maybe not always scared—but that place? You gotta respect it. You can’t just go out there, even if the car is good, you can’t say I’m gonna go out there, first lap flat out. No. You’ve gotta respect the place because that’s a magical place. But you don’t show respect, it will show you who is the big one.
AM: Who do you wish you could have raced against at Indy—or anywhere, for that matter?
HC: Well, for sure Rick is one of them, he would be awesome, to see him running. Also Mario. And the third one probably would be my idol, Ayrton Senna. That would be the combination. I’d probably be in trouble (laughs). But it would be awesome to race those guys.
AM: We’ll wrap it up with this: What is the one thing in your career you wish you could do over or do differently?
HC: In my career, I wouldn’t do anything different. I would do it just the way it happened, because everything happened for a reason. Some races, yeah, some races I would have done differently for sure. But I guess that’s life; you learn with experience. Some opportunities pass by, but that’s what we call life. But with respect to my career, I’m extremely happy with where I am.