INDIANAPOLIS – It’s like building a business from scratch. That’s the situation Helio Castroneves finds himself in right now. Frustrating? Sure. Humbling? Absolutely. But exciting all in the same sense?
For two decades of his life, the 47-year old veteran knew that he could show up each race weekend and focus on nothing more than just winning. That’s expected when the name Penske is on your paychecks.
They have the most wins and championships in series history for a reason.
Castroneves delivered too. 30 wins between between 2000 and 2017 all came with Penske. That put him 11th on the all-time wins list. His 41 runner-ups ranked him 3rd most. His 93 podiums were also in the top 10 of the all-time list with his 50 career poles landing him in the top 5 too.
Life was easy in that era.
Now though, he finds himself in a vastly different circumstance this year. Castroneves is the same person, the same driver that those past stats with Penske reflect. However, the team isn’t. Plus, with spending 4 seasons on a part-time basis in the series, a lot has changed for him too for what he used to like out of a car.
Meyer Shank Racing is no Team Penske. That’s not a slight to them. No one is. MSR is still in their growing phase where Penske has been established for decades. MSR They’ve taken the right approach to expanding in the most challenging yet diverse racing landscape in the world.
1 race in 2017. 6 in 2018. 10 in 2019. Full-time in 2020. For 2021, they’d introduce a 2nd car to the mix and in came Castroneves to drive in for 6 races. 2022 they’d go full-time.
“When you start a company, I learned a little bit with Roger in the place, sometimes you’re making a dealership, first year you lose money. It’s pretty much like this in the racing team,” he told me on Wednesday afternoon ahead of Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, INDYCAR Radio Network).
“Sometimes you put a team together, even the team has experience or sharing information with another group, it takes time to follow the process, to put everything in place. Some people coming and going. So it takes time.
“You just got to trust the process. I’m confident that we will get our deserved result. And hopefully this weekend we’ll break through.”
In saying that, Castroneves is genuinely happy to be back as a full-time NTT INDYCAR Series participant. The 2022 season is the first time that he’s raced for a championship since 2017. However, in saying that, the 4-time Indianapolis 500 champion sits 18th in the standings as we near the final stretch.
That has him disappointed in how this season has played out even with the learning phase. While he expected it to be a challenge, they didn’t think it would be as hard as it’s been though.
“I didn’t expect how difficult it was,” he told me. “We are make some changes internally to make sure these last three races, we continue to improve.
“This Aeroscreen literally threw a curve ball, to find a sweet spot, taking longer than I expected for myself to adapt and to understand what the car needs.
“We always like one side or another. We’re never able to find it. You see good drivers, guys that used to be in the series longer, able to have those inconsistencies, as well.
“But we pushing. I feel like we could be better. But remember, it’s the first full-time season that I’m in. Certainly we’re preparing for bigger things in the future.”
You have to remember, this is the first time Castroneves has seen a lot of these tracks with that Aeroscreen. While he still ran some races on a part-time basis between 2018 and 2021, all were basically at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the exception of 3 a year ago.
This new device that debuted in 2020, has really challenged Castroneves to find what he likes in an Indy Car again.
“It’s interesting, because of the weight of the Aeroscreen, certainly it change a little bit the weight of the steering wheel. I used to run with different type of caster, for example, system that everyone use in the race car. You can actually change that. Adjusting that, there was no issues.
“Certainly the beginning of the season, because I was racing with IMSA for the last three years, it changed. It changed the style, the quickness, it changed the position.”
For the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons, Castroneves ran just the GMR Grand Prix and Indy 500 only for Team Penske while also racing a full time slate in sports cars. However, after the 2020 ‘500 came and went, he was free to search for employment elsewhere.
Arrow McLaren SP needed a replacement for the 7 car so they tabbed Castroneves for the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend. For 2021, he joined Meyer Shank Racing and won their first race together for the Indianapolis 500.
That led to opportunities at Nashville, the IMS road course in August of 2021, Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach. It was all in preparation for a full time slate this year.
While he says it’s not a season that he would have liked, the silver lining is that in the races that he ran for MSR in 2021, they’ve been his best results in 2022.
Castroneves has 3 top 10’s this season and 2 of them were at the Indy 500 and Long Beach. His 4th best finish came two weeks ago at Nashville which was another track he ran a year ago.
I don’t think that’s a fluke. With him eyeing a full season return for 2023, seeing these tracks again a year from now should only boost him up even more. The final 3 races are at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland and Laguna Seca. Both west coast races to wrap up the year are tracks he raced at last year. For WWTR, this is one of his best tracks.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he told me. “Detroit for example this year we had a great opportunity. Unfortunately there was a mechanical issue. Nothing wrong with the team or mechanics, they did a great job. It’s just something that broke. We were like, Really, now?
“But we feel St. Louis is a place that could work. Iowa was another place we felt we could be very strong. Unfortunately making huge mistakes and misunderstanding on the penalties. Yeah, so we just keep pushing. That’s one thing I will never stop, is pushing. Whether it’s on the racetrack, qualifying, or doing the pit stops, I’m just going to giving it at all.”
He finished 4th here in 2017. He was runner-up in 2002 and won in 2003. Even going back to the CART days he had a top 10 finish in each to net him 5 top 10’s in as many tries.
Part of those 2023 plans could be the Daytona 500. After he won the season opening SRX race this summer, he revealed part of those plans by doing so would be Don Hawk finding him a Daytona opportunity.
The most logical sense was the Project 91 car for Trackhouse. It’s for this exact situation. Castroneves admitted that he’s talked to Justin Marks and said that he was told to let them get through the Watkins Glen weekend with Kimi Raikkonen in that No. 91 Chevrolet and then they’d revisit this potential opportunity.
“That’s the transparency that Justin (Marks) told me. I understand. You got to remember, they’re pulling a lot of people to make this project works. They got to make sure that it works right.
“After Kimi, then we going to probably start the conversation again. Really looking forward to fulfill that dream to be at Daytona 500.”
The focus is still on INDYCAR and he notes they’re close on a contract extension to keep him in place for 2023. He’ll be 48 next May but not showing signs of slowing.
“We’re finalizing some small details. I have to say when we announce — soon we going to be announcing something. Hopefully we’ll be able to clear a lot of things that people are asking sometimes.”