By Kevin Alan Lamb
The Brazilian born Helio Castroneves dazzles on stage with his dance moves, in hearts around the world with his smile, and last but not least, around whichever Indy race track he is taking the pole on that day.
A native of Ribeirão Preto, Brazil, Helio identifies personally with one driver more than all the rest:
“James Hinchcliffe in terms of personality,” Helio said.
Hinchcliffe is a Canadian IndyCar Series racer who succeeded Danika Kilpatrick in the #27 Go Daddy.com car for Andretti Autosport.
In terms of a driver that is most similar to the Brazilian technically:
“Driving, wow, Ryan Briscoe, he’s fast and very technical,” Helio said. Briscoe is an Australian auto racing driver that has raced open wheel and sports cars in Europe and America. In addition to English, Briscoe speaks Italian and French.
Every child-athlete has a hero and for Helio, that hero was another Brazilian, regarded as one of the greatest F1 drivers to have raced.
“Growing up, Ayrton Senna, in my home country, he was aggressive, but was more philosophical, he was very good with words, and the press especially,” the star said recalling his yesteryears.
Had the stars not quite aligned in this lifetime, enabling a child to realize his lifelong dream, the 36-year-old assures that he couldn’t stray far from his most innate passion:
“A chauffeur, I like to drive too much. I was born to be behind the wheel,” Helio offered as the profession he envisioned for himself had he not become an auto-racer.
In IndyCar competition, Helio has 14 wins and 28 poles, and had never placed lower than sixth in the standings in a complete season of racing until 2011, where he placed eleventh. He currently holds IRL IndyCar records for the most top-ten finishes (93); Poles (30); and most consecutive seasons with a race win (10). In 2009 he reset the all-time record for most wins (22) and starts (209) by a driver who has not won the National Championship, records formerly held by Bill Holland at Indy and compatriot Raul Boesel at Richmond respectively.
“As a professional, winning the Indy 500, the third one especially,” Helio recognizes as his greatest accomplishment on the track.
However, off the track, “Spider-Man”, a nickname given to him by fans because of his victory celebration, in which he climbs the trackside debris fence, is a proud father with girlfriend Adriana Henao.
“Personally, my daughter, Mikaella,” Helio said with bright eyes.
The dashing Helio broke a tie with his former manager Emerson Fittipaldi for most IndyCar wins by a Brazilian drivers with his 23rd career win, at Barber Motorsports Park in 2010.
“Everytime I go to the racetrack, it doesn’t matter where it is, I know I have a great chance to win,” Helio said of the mindset required to be a successful racer.
The IndyRacer won the creme de la creme of IndyRacing, the Indianapolis 500, in 2001, 2002, and 2009, making him one of only nine drivers to date to have won at least three.
Criticial to the Brazilian’s mindset as a highly-competitive racer are the parents that instilled a winning pedigree from the start.
“To be a champion, you have to act like a champion,” Helio offered as the most influential advice his parents ever gave him.
With an exuberant personality it comes as little surprise that the No. 3 racer was asked to be a participant on the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars, where he and partner Julianne Hough stole the show and emerged as the last dancers standing.
“Julianne Hough, my partner,” Helio credits for teaching him to dance. As for what he misses the most from the 2007 reality television experience:
“Dancing actually, I really enjoyed learning how to dance, I had a great time,” Helio said.
Given the opportunity to meet any musician the Penske racer looks to one of Michigan’s own:
“Madonna. She’s been in the spotlight for so many years, it’d be great to have a chat with her,” Helio said.
The 36-year-old is excited to return to Bell Isle for the Grand Prix in June:
“My first win in 2000,” Helio remembers most distinctly from the Detroit IndyRace.
While a mountain conquered is remembered in books that tell the stories of great men, it is the ascension and perseverance through troubled times that define said great men and make a story worth telling. For Helio, the year was 1999, and for the first time his future as a racer was uncertain.
“I guess, in 1999 when I didn’t know if I was going to be back racing or not, that was the toughest,” Helio said recalling the darkest days of his career.
“I felt an empty space inside of me, once I was able to come back, I knew I was going to be here for a long time,” Helio said.
His personality and appeal to fans becomes more apparent once his favorite racing movie is revealed.
“The one coming up, ‘Turbo,'” Helio said.
“Turbo” is a computer-animated comedy film from Dreamworks animation starring Ryan Reynolds. Turbo is a snail who dreams of being the greatest racer in the world, just like his hero, five-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Guy Gagne. Like Ricki Bobbi (“Talladega Nights”), Turbo is obsessed with speed and all things fast.
If Helio’s fans every travel to his home country, Brazil, he urges they enjoy its finest commodity:
“Go to the beaches, they’re going to love it!”
Be sure to enjoy Helio in action, Sunday, June 3, on Belle Isle, for the 2012, Cheverlote Detroit Grand Prix.
Follow Kevin on Twitter (@ShaggyLamb).
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