Whether it's Indy cars or sports cars, Helio will always be Helio

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – When they discovered Helio Castroneves wasn’t the winner of the pole position, photographers ran away from him to find the driver who did win it. At Helio’s request.

The comical sight during Thursday’s qualifying for the Rolex 24 At Daytona went like this: Castroneves was out of his car, helmet on, hoping to celebrate the pole position in front of a group of photographers, but Renger van der Zande was in the middle of a fast lap on the Daytona International Speedway road course. Team Penske president Tim Cindric was updating Castroneves by radio about van der Zande’s lap.

Because of a slight delay on the track’s video boards, Castroneves knew he’d lost the pole before photographers did. As they shot photos of him, Castroneves tried to tell them he wasn’t the winner.  

“One of the guys was like, ‘Give me a pose,’” Castroneves explained Friday through bursts of laughter. “I was still connected with the pit box by radio, and Cindric was actually commentating about the lap. As soon as he won it, they were like, ‘Show us a pose.’ … I was trying to tell them, but the helmet didn’t allow them to hear me.”

Sports car racing, meet Helio Castroneves. Helio, meet sports car racing.

The beginning of Castroneves’ transition from full-time Verizon IndyCar Series driver to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship felt distinctly Helioistic in that moment. He laughed, he cried, he laughed again, and – of course – drove a lap that could only be topped by 0.007 of a second.

He’ll be back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May trying again to win the Indy 500 for a record-tying fourth time, but Castroneves is now officially a sports car driver. And he’s up to the challenge.

“At this stage of my career, a lot of people might wonder what the heck I am doing,” the 42-year-old Castroneves said. “To be honest, it rejuvenates me. I’m actually asking for opinions from guys in their 20s because they have experience. I’m doing things I’ve never done before.”

Castroneves and the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi – co-driven by Graham Rahal and Ricky Taylor – will start second when the race begins Saturday at 2:40 p.m. ET. Van der Zande and teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jordan Taylor (Ricky’s brother) will start from the pole position.

For Castroneves, it’s a mostly new game. He has some sports car experience, but not much. He’s rarely raced at night, hasn’t seen many of the tracks on the IMSA schedule and hasn’t had much time in closed-cockpit cars.

But, in typical Helio fashion, he’s enthusiastic about the challenge.

“I don’t think I’m there yet because of all the new elements,” Castroneves said. “I learn as I go, which is natural. The good news is there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

As a long-time competitor and first-time teammate, Rahal sees Castroneves’ improvement in his new role. The job now isn’t raw speed, but pace, efficiency and minimal mistakes.

“It’s difficult to come out of the Indy car mindset of ‘go, go, go’ and transition to this,” said Rahal, whose full-time job remains with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series. “I can see it already with him this weekend. His lap in qualifying was unbelievable, but at the same time, you risk using the car hard in order to do that. That doesn’t work over 24 hours. He’ll tell you that it took a little mind reset this morning. ‘OK, stop using so much curb or stop doing this or that. I’ve got to last for 24.’ I personally think he’s going to excel here.”

Team Penske’s other car – the No. 6 Acura – also has a strong INDYCAR flavor. Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud will share the driving duties with Dane Cameron, a 29-year-old who won the IMSA Prototype class championship in 2016. Cameron and Ricky Taylor have been Castroneves’ go-to teammates for advice.

“He asks a lot of intelligent questions and is able to retain that information and improve,” Cameron said. “He’s very, very good at that. He’s been asking a lot of questions and trying to get going, He absorbs information and trusts his teammates. … You might think the positivity is just a TV thing, but that’s him. He’s happy and always excited.”

He’s especially enthusiastic when he’s learning something new.

“It is a different car, a different tire and a completely different strategy,” Castroneves said. “Right now, I’m relying a lot on Ricky and Dane because those guys have a lot of experience in this type of racing. I’m just trying to understand every time I’m in the car what I can do or not. To be honest, I’m still learning. After spending 20 years in Indy cars and not having traction control or power steering, there is so much I don’t know. The potential is infinite.”

If the potential is infinite, then so is the respect he’s gained.

“He’s a character, there’s no doubt about that,” Rahal said. “I’ve competed against him for years and I’ve watched him for many more years than that, but I’ve gained a heck of a lot more respect for him in these past two months of getting to know him and sharing a car with him and seeing how he works. It’s pretty spectacular. He’s a hell of a shoe. It’s been a lot fun to be in this position with him.”

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