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Super Brazilian is a racing sensation

October 27, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

That poor Daytona police officer.

He really didn't know what he had stumbled onto that morning a few Februarys ago in Daytona Beach, Fla., when the blur of a red Lexus sports coupe blazed by at a few too many clicks over 65.

Many drivers try to get out of tickets. But who knew the cop would meet a conversation piece like this?

"I was on my way to the (International Race of Champions) event and I did try to talk my way out of the speeding ticket, but it did not work," race car driver Helio Castroneves explains to me in a conversation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What did you say to get out of it, I ask?

"I just told him, 'I'm Castroneves.'"

And what did the cop say?

"What the heck are you talking about? Here's your ticket."

Helio Castroneves, the open-wheel phenomena and the biggest, brightest bulb in a box of normally sedate drivers, leans his jet-black head back and laughs that same teeth-to-the-wind Helio laugh.

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In any language, on any continent, in any walk of life, in any conversation, Castroneves means speed.

He talks like he's in a race to find the period at the end of a sentence. He races through the full range of emotions - from a smile to a tear and back to a smile - in mere seconds.

And if you've never heard of him, don't be surprised.

A man who has won the Indianapolis 500 twice, Castroneves is probably the least-known present-day racing champion. He should be as well known as any Formula One or NASCAR champion, but he isn't.

Why? He's a talented driver living in the shadow of racing turmoil that has split the North American open-wheel racing world in two. For nearly a decade, some drivers have bounced back and forth between the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).

Castroneves could care less. He doesn't talk about the split, preferring to take the high road, or at least the fast one.

In fact, he can't stand it when life doesn't follow at the same velocity.

"Sometimes we have to tell Helio about patience," said Rick Mears, a man who showed so much of it he won four times at the Indianapolis 500 with car owner Roger Penske. Mears serves as a technical consultant and driver coach for the team.

"But Helio's enthusiasm is understandable. All he wants to do is win. All he wants is the next victory," Mears said.

"Vitoria."

It's all about the vitoria.

Talk to Castroneves long enough and he'll tell you he has been dreaming of the vitoria since he was a boy racing karts in the circular center of Ribeirao Preto, Brazil.

Late Formula One champion Ayrton Senna was all about vitoria. So was driver Emerson Fittipaldi.

"Vitoria is Portuguese for 'victory,'" Castroneves said. "It's all we Brazilians think about. When is the next victory?"

A few more wins in the Indy Racing League and at the Indianapolis 500, North American racing's most hallowed ground, and everyone back home thinks of a new word: sobrehumano.

Superhuman?

"That would be something special," Castroneves said.

He's nearly there. In just a few years in Indy Racing League, open-wheel racing, he has averaged about a win in every 10 starts. He has won millions of dollars. He has led his series in top-five finishes, top-10 finishes and earnings. He has won the Indianapolis 500 twice, the first driver in 30 years to win it back-to-back and only the fifth driver to ever pull off a repeat.

And he's not even 30.

"But I still feel I have a lot to accomplish, hopefully," he said. "I still have to work harder. I still have to learn a lot. All the records are made to be broke. And now I have an opportunity to do something nobody did."

Some would argue he has already set a new standard.

Few Indy winners have delivered the kind of emotion - emocao - that Castroneves has. From his post-race fence climbing ("Spiderman," he's called), to the night after his first Indy win two years ago, to the night he stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch a tape-delayed rebroadcast of the race just to "get the last details," he brings a little more charisma and charm to open-wheel racing in general, and Indy in particular.

He provides a breath of fresh air where things were growing increasingly stale, the most colorful driver to hit racing in years and an engagingly gregarious personality.

Mears said that's just Castroneves.

"It's infectious. Who can't get excited about a guy who starts scaling the fence after he wins?"

If he wins more titles, what will they say about the little man with the big resume? What will they say about more climbs on that fence?

What will the new word be?

How will vitoria translate?

"Maybe it will just be Castroneves," he said.

In any language, everyone will know what it means.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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