Two nights before the Indy 500, the topic of Helio Castroneves moved front and center during dinner. One member of our party, someone who’s close enough to make such a statement with authority, offered this paraphrased declaration:
There’s much more to Helio than smiling and laughing and climbing fences. He’s completely in tune with all aspects of what he’s doing, far more than we give him credit for. He’s aware of everything around him, how it works, and how to influence the way it works. He’s fully in charge of what he’s doing and what he has accomplished.
In short, Helio is smarter – and better and more in tune – than we sometimes think he is.
That brought to the conversation a feature story about Castroneves written years ago that led with Randy Quaid’s decades-old impersonation of President Ronald Reagan on “Saturday Night Live.” In front of the cameras, Quaid/Reagan was a doddering fool. But once he disappeared into the Oval Office, he barked orders and became commander in chief.
Wouldn’t it be apropos, the story asked, if Helio was this complicated?
Turns out he’s all things, and his victory Sunday at Iowa Speedway – in the face of speculation that this could be his final full Verizon IndyCar Series season for Team Penske – is plain evidence of it.
At times, Castroneves can be exuberant, silly and full of joy. He also can be focused, serious and self-aware. And he can move in and out of his marvelously complicated persona with breathtaking speed.
Our dinner conversation from six weeks prior proved spot-on at Iowa. Helio Castroneves is deeper and more complicated than we think. He’s also still very good at his craft, and we should be making a commotion to see more of his career. Let’s face it: Racers are a dime a dozen. But racers who entertain? They’re gold.
To understand Helio is to understand that he isn’t like the rest of us. He’s different. He doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeves; his emotions are his sleeves. While most of us frown and complain and look at our feet, Helio lives life with full-on glee. That’s not an act for cameras. He actually is this way.
It isn’t only about elation, either. It’s about the entire spectrum of his emotions. Everything is near the surface for Helio. He can be reflective, thoughtful, clever, funny and, yes, angry, and it’s all easily accessible. There isn’t just one emotion when it comes to him. With Helio, you get all emotions, often simultaneously.
At Indianapolis last year, he went from live pit interview to furiously chasing away an apologizing JR Hildebrand back to composed interview in a matter of seconds. Raw and complicated and in control almost at once. Nothing about it was fabricated. It was simply – and complicatedly – Helio.
I’ve seen him get emotional and introspective in quiet interviews, listened to him tell off-color jokes over the radio to his crew while sitting in the pits, and watched him at his most serious and most ridiculous. He’s carefully crafted his image (perhaps more wisely than any of his contemporaries), but he is real.
“Yes, I am an emotional guy,” he said Tuesday by phone. “I definitely enjoy and celebrate every small piece of momentum. That’s because I know how competitive it is and how difficult it is. I appreciate all of that. I feel that if you try to fake it, you can’t. You can’t act. This is just the way I was raised.”
Back in the mid-1990s, when Castroneves was trying to make his way in Indy Lights, a friend told him something that stuck.
“He said, ‘Even if you start 22nd, I guarantee you the guy in the stands is looking at you and wishing he was you, so appreciate what you have,’” Castroneves said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Oh my God, I never saw it that way.’ That’s why I appreciate what I’ve got. That’s why I’m excited when I go to the racetrack. That’s why I get upset when things go bad, too.”
The news that broke before the Iowa race – that Team Penske was considering moving Castroneves from his full-time role in the Verizon IndyCar Series and into its 2018 sports-car plan – surprised some. After all, he’s finished second in the championship four times. He’s won 30 races in 20 seasons, including three Indy 500s, and he’s eight points behind Scott Dixon for the lead heading to Toronto this weekend.
Some of us don’t want to see this come to an end.
On the Fourth of July, during a particularly long leg of an insane, 18-state road trip, I happened to drive past Pikes Peak International Raceway, the mile oval that hosted the series for 10 years in the late ‘90s and early aughts. I recalled a day when I arrived at PPIR before practice and parked alongside Helio. His greeting was all Helio – pure happiness, with typical racetrack-arrival banter about rental cars, hotels and airports.
It struck me at the time that he was genuinely thrilled to be arriving at work. I am not equipped with the thrilled-to-work chip, but I wished that I could borrow his attitude. It was genuine and admirable. Like the hypothetical fan, I wanted to be Helio at that moment.
Even as speculation about his future dominated the aftermath of his accomplishment at Iowa, Castroneves addresses it as only he can:
“There are a lot of things that are out of my control,” he said. “You’ve got to look at that the right way. I enjoy very much what I do, and I want to keep doing it. … I still think it’s possible that it’s not going to be my last year. I can only speak from my side, but somehow I believe that it’s not going to be my last year. But it depends. It always depends. You’ve got to dance according to the music, you know. If it’s a tango, you’ve got to dance a tango out there. If the rhythm is going to change, you’ve got to change your rhythm.”
Helio isn’t good because he’s highly entertaining. He’s highly entertaining because he’s good. We’d like to keep witnessing that for as long as possible, please.