MADISON, Illinois – Helio Castroneves can’t wait to return to Gateway Motorsports Park. No, not just because he won the last Indy car pole and race at the track. This time, he has more practical reasons.
Notably, a recent repave that impressed the drivers who tested there Aug. 3.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a track that’s as smooth as a baby’s butt,” Castroneves said. “It’s so smooth and so amazing. Wow! I feel like it’s going to be an awesome race. It’s going to be great because there’s a lot of grip. It’s fast.”
BOMMARITO AUTOMOTIVE GROUP 500: Entry list; Weekend schedule
Indy cars haven’t raced on the unique 1.25-mile oval since 2003, when Castroneves held off Tony Kanaan to win. In fact, just three drivers entered in Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline – Castroneves, Kanaan and Scott Dixon – competed at Gateway during its seven-year run of CART and Verizon IndyCar Series events in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Castroneves recalled his 2003 victory not for what resulted, but for what he didn’t have while racing.
“I didn’t have a dash (readout),” he said. “My steering wheel somehow had a glitch. It was blinking from the beginning, and it never stopped doing it throughout the race. I had no information. No RPMs, no information regarding fuel mileage or lap times, no gear pattern – nothing. It was like old times when you didn’t have anything.”
He also recalled the track’s unusual configuration. The egg-shaped oval features differing turning radii at each end, with Turns 1-2 much tighter than Turns 3-4. It’s often compared with Twin Ring Motegi, a 1.549-mile oval in Motegi, Japan, that hosted the series until 2010 (with a final race run on the Motegi road course in 2011).
“I used to do really well in Japan,” Castroneves said. “Some tracks just suit your style, and I think this is one of them. It’s one of those things that feels automatic or natural. It comes your way. Even though it will be different cars and different speeds, I feel like it’s still a pretty good place for me.”
Gateway has a diverse if somewhat brief history in open-wheel racing. The first four races, beginning in 1997, were under CART sanction. In 2001, it switched to the Indy Racing League – what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Other winners in addition to Castroneves in seven years at Gateway were Alex Zanardi, Gil de Ferran, Paul Tracy, Juan Pablo Montoya, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr.
The renewal of Gateway on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule comes at a crucial point in the 2017 season, one of three races in a 15-day span that set up the double-points season finale Sept. 17 at Sonoma Raceway
Josef Newgarden, who finished second behind Team Penske teammate Will Power on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, leads Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon by just 18 points, the third-smallest margin with three races remaining since 2010. Castroneves is in third, four points behind Dixon.
Fifteen drivers remain mathematically eligible for the title, including 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud, who is fourth in the standings, 26 points off Newgarden’s pace.
“We're racing every week now,” Pagenaud said. “It's crunch time for the championship. This is what racing is all about, when you have to bring your 'A' game in tough situations.”
But for Castroneves, the return to Gateway is more than just the resurrection of a racetrack. It’s an emotional experience. In 1999, Carl Hogan hired Castroneves to drive the No. 9 Hogan Racing Mercedes-Benz, a year after Castroneves’ Indy car career started with Bettenhausen Motorsports. The Hogan team’s shop was based in St. Louis and Castroneves’ runner-up finish at Gateway in 1999 was his – and the team’s – best finish of the season.
At the end of the season, Hogan disbanded the team. The following year, Castroneves joined Team Penske. In January 2001, Hogan died.
“They gave me an opportunity in Indy car (racing),” Castroneves said. “For me, Gateway is a special place. The Hogan family welcomed me with such open arms. St. Louis is the place where I started all over again. It’s so special. It’s such a great memory.”
Track action at Gateway, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, begins with a one-hour practice at 5 p.m. ET Friday. Qualifying is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with a final 60-minute practice under the lights at 10 p.m. Each session will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
NBCSN’s live race coverage begins at 9 p.m. Saturday, with the expected green flag to wave at 9:40.
Bommarito Automotive Group 500 fast facts:
Race 15 of 17 on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule
Track: Gateway Motorsports Park, 1.25-mile oval in Madison, Illinois
Race distance: 248 laps/310 miles
Track record: Raul Boesel, 187.963 mph, 24.324 seconds, May 23, 1997 (track distance listed at 1.27 miles at the time)
Firestone tire allotment: 11 sets for use throughout the weekend; same specification as used earlier this season at Phoenix Raceway
NBCSN telecast information: Qualifying airs on a tape-delay basis at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday; live race coverage begins at 9 p.m. ET Saturday
Ticket information: gatewaymsp.com