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Helio Castroneves: Indy Racing Legend

Helio Castroneves is a Brazilian born open-wheel racing sensation, and a fan favorite in the Izod IndyCar Series.  He got his start racing go-karts on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, driving against current IndyCar racers Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, and others.  After showing immense promise in the go-karts, Castroneves was given a ride in the British Formula Three Championship Series in 1995, finishing third in the point standings.  From there he moved to the IndyCar feeder system, Indy Lights, where he teamed with his old pal Kanaan.

In 1998, CART, the opposing series to the IRL, came calling, and Castroneves accepted a ride with Bettenhausen Racing.  He spent one year with the team before joining Hogan Racing for the 1999 season.  He failed to win a race in either season, but showed enough skill to catch the attention of racing legend Roger Penske.  When Penske drivers Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore were killed in separate accidents at the end of the ’99 season, Castroneves was pegged as the guy to take over, and take over he did, winning three races and finishing 7th in the CART points standings.

The next season he finished fourth, but more importantly, made his first appearance in Speedway, Indiana when Penske decided to break rank, and enter the Indy 500.  Despite being a rookie, Castroneves took over the lead from Columbus, Indiana native Tony Stewart on Lap 149, and held off teammate Gil de Ferran to capture the Borg Warner Trophy in his maiden trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  After the race, in what’s become his customary method of celebration, Castroneves and his crew members climbed the inside retaining fence and saluted the adoring crowd.  This not only led to his “Spiderman” nickname, but it endeared him forever in the hearts of Indianapolis sports fans who follow the IndyCar Series.

“Spiderman” climbing the fence at the Indy 50

 

In 2002, Penske and Castroneves moved from CART to the IRL, and the exuberant Brazilian became just the 5th driver to win back-to-back 500’s in what many consider to be the most controversial race in Indy history.  On Lap 199, Paul Tracy passed the leading Castroneves in turn three, but at the same time Tracy was making the pass, a crash occurred on another part of the track.  IRL officials went back and reviewed the tape, ruling that the yellow had come out before Tracy completed the pass, giving the win to Castroneves.  Tracy and his team made an official protest, but the original ruling was upheld.

Over the next six seasons, Castroneves never won an IRL points championship, but he finished with a second, two thirds, a fourth and two six place finishes, making him one of the most consistently good drivers in series history. Helio gained national mainstream media attention when he joined the cast of the hit ABC television show “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007.  He ended up being crowned the winner of the competition, and his good looks and bubbly personality gained him fans — many of the female variety — across the nation.

It hasn’t been all roses and champagne for Castroneves though, in 2009, just months before the racing season was set to kick off, he was indicted on federal tax evasion charges.  The proceeding trial caused him to miss the first race of the year, but when he was finally acquitted, Castroneves wasted no time getting back in the car, and on Sunday May 24, 2009, Helio became the sixth driver to win three Indianapolis 500’s, and the first foreign-born driver to accomplish the feat.  In addition, the victory solidified his standing as a true Indy racing legend.