Happy Helio

Helio Castroneves has an infectious enthusiasm that wins him friends quite easily. But it was his ability behind the wheel of Team Penske's Indy car that won him the 85th Indianapolis 500. Castroneves became the eighth Indianapolis 500 rookie in history to win the world's biggest race. The driver from CART led 52 laps, the most in the 200-lap race, and gave team owner Roger Penske a record 11th Indianapolis 500 win.

Happy Helio

It was the culmination of a dream that the 26-year-old driver first had when he watched fellow Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi win the 1989 Indy 500 on television.

"When I was a kid, I always dreamed of wearing a helmet in the colours of red and white and driving like Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi and all of his drivers," Castroneves said. "Even Roger Penske, I thought that guy must be great. Today, I'm winning for his team and this was just a fantastic day."

Castroneves was able to live his dream on Sunday, leading a CART sweep of the top-five positions in the race. Throw in NASCAR Winston Cup driver Tony Stewart, who was driving for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing - another CART team - and the rival Indy Racing League was shut out of the top-six spots in the IRL's biggest race.

"The memories that I have is when Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. got together in Turn 3," Castroneves said of the 1989 race. "Emerson won. And from that point, I mean in Brazil, we were looking for the million dollars. We all thought, `Wow, that guy is rich.' It inspired a lot of kids my age to come over here.

"The tradition is amazing and that I what makes this place famous. I hope kids in Brazil are watching this race and are now looking for the same way that I was looking for."

The first thing Castroneves did when he won the biggest race of his career was look for a fence to climb. It has become his trademark after winning races in CART. But, this is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the traditions are time-honoured, not spontaneous.

So when Castroneves parked his car at the start finish line rather than pull it into the pit area and into victory lane, the 400,000 fans that has witnessed his stirring battle knew what was going to happen. And so did an IRL official, who ran across pit lane in an attempt to stop Castroneves from climbing the fence at the start/finish line.

The official pulled up and let Castroneves climb the fence at the most famous race track in the world. A few seconds later, his crew joined him and climbed the fence, creating a new tradition at one of the world's oldest race courses.

"Climbing the fence, nobody said there would be a fine, so I just wanted to express my feelings like that," Castroneves said.

Castroneves earned a chance to celebrate the biggest victory of his career - one that will remain with him for the rest of his life. From now on, whenever he is introduced, it will be "Helio Castroneves - Indianapolis 500 winner."

It was just a little over one month ago when Castroneves was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Rookie Orientation Program that he was spooked by the first turn, causing him to slide through the short chute between turns 1 and 2. Then, when he was competing in practice before Pole Day, he crashed in the first turn twice.

An old ritual at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is if a rookie crashes into the same turn twice, he has to paint the wall. Castroneves was in the first turn painting the tyre marks off the wall the night before Pole Day.

"I was trying too much in Turn 1, and I don't know, I think I was pretty off in Turn 1," Castroneves said. "I was making sure every lap I keep away from that wall, and every lap I was learning something different. But, today it didn't matter if you start pole position or middle of the field or the back as long as you are smart and always make sure you are on the lead lap.

"I learned a lot today. I'm not going to say it was easy. It was very difficult."

It was the preparation that has made Team Penske famous that helped turn Castroneves into a rookie winner.

"With the system we had for the whole month, plus doing the rookie test, it would be easy for you to get lost," Castroneves said. "I was getting a lot of frustration with Turn 1. Sometimes it would understeer, sometimes it would oversteer. I reached the point where I was kissing the wall. I said, `OK, that's the limit.' You don't want to find the limit this way. I believe we spent the whole time to try to understand the car."

Castroneves was also surprised at how the weather conditions would drastically change the way the car handled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I was getting upset with myself because I understood that when the wind changed, you had to change the way you drove the car. It's not all the ovals that you do that, it's this one here only. I didn't change at all the way I was driving the oval because you will get better as you lead the race.

"Sometimes, you want to lead all of the race, but the last lap is the one that matters. I was really playing cool, even when Tony Stewart was in front of me; I was drafting and saving fuel. As you get more experience, you will expect the oval even more."

Not only is Castroneves a fantastic talent behind the wheel of a race car, but he has a way of making his team feel at ease.

"It's the natural talent that he has and the enthusiasm that he brings, not only in the good times, but also the bad times," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric. "It's great to have him help lead the team with his enthusiasm because it's difficult to do in my shoes or Roger's."

Castroneves does not want his victory to be viewed as a great triumph for CART, but rather a great triumph for Team Penske. On Sunday, he was not a CART driver competing against the IRL, but an Indy 500 driver.

"We came over here with the same equipment that everybody has and tried to do the best job that we can," Castroneves said. "Today, we couldn't do any better than finish 1-2 in a 500-mile race. When I came to America, the two series were already separated. As long as you keep the faith, you will get what you want."

In the latter stages of the race, Castroneves' strongest IRL competition came from Robbie Buhl. During a highly spirited duel that lasted from laps 157-166, Buhl made several attempts to pass Castroneves' Dallara-Oldsmobile. In the end, Buhl lost control in the hot pursuit and spun out of the second turn. He went on to finish 15th, four laps down.

"When Robbie Buhl was behind me, he was always very fast on the straightaways," Castroneves said. "But, I was always very consistent. When Gil was beside me, I knew he wouldn't let off, he was going for it. My car wasn't fast by itself, but it was great in traffic. I think the laps proved it.

"Sometimes, the fastest guy is not the one who leads going away, but the one who makes the less mistakes is the one who is going to be the winner."

So what next? Formula 1... perhaps.

"Where I came from in Brazil, Formula One is the main sport," he said. "When I came to America and was in Indy Lights, I met a lot of people who gave me the opportunity to show my talent. Every driver has their own steps and their own way. I don't want to follow Juan Montoya or Jacques Villeneuve or somebody else, I wanted to go and have the best opportunity to win. I always want to achieve my targets and goals and one is winning races. I'm happy where I am today, but if a big Formula One team came and asked if I wanted to go for it, I'd have to think about it."

His team owner believes that if a top Formula 1 team ever offers Castroneves a ride, he should consider it.

"I think US racing on ovals and road courses has demonstrated the strength of our drivers," Penske said. "Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Andretti, Juan Montoya and certainly Helio. If he has a chance to drive for a first-class Formula 1 team, I'd be the first to tell him to go. He's the right age. He has won on the streets of Long Beach, on the ovals and on the road courses.

"Many times, our drivers are underestimated. If he has a chance with the right team, I'd be the first to tell him to go. It would have to be one of those grey cars (McLaren) or one of the red cars (Ferrari). That is what I would want to get him in."

On Sunday, Penske wanted to get either one of his drivers into victory lane. It was the excitable Castroneves that gave the famed team owner a chance to celebrate with the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500. The newest face that will be sculpted onto that trophy will be that of Castroneves, the driver with the infectious enthusiasm and the winning smile.

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