If Helio Castroneves was a computer and he tried to describe his life, 2021 would have been a total reboot.

He’s now, in essence, Helio 2.0 with so many significant changes having occurred in the Brazilian native’s life since January. Consider first: After more than 20 years of living in his beloved Fort Lauderdale, he moved to Atlanta (although he still maintains a part-time second home in suburban Miami now). He also came back to race part-time in IndyCar for the first time since 2017. And to that end, with the exception of a couple of races during the 2020 season for Arrow McLaren SP, 2021 marked the first time he had not raced full-time for Roger Penske and Team Penske in either IndyCar or IMSA since 1998. It was an incredible run for Castroneves, who wound up capturing 30 (of 31) IndyCar wins with Team Penske.

The second-biggest change was he decided to take a chance to run a six-race, part-time schedule for the small but up-and-coming Michael Shank Racing (MSR) organization. It was one of the best decisions Castroneves ever made in his racing career. In late May—in a very uncharacteristic position as an underdog and in his first start with MSR—Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 (and his first in over a decade; his third win was in 2009). In so doing, Castroneves is now tied with fellow IndyCar legends Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears as the only drivers to win the 500 four times in their careers.

“Things between the team and I changed so much this year,” Castroneves said. “I mean, our first race together was the Indy 500 and I hardly know the names of the guys on the team.”

And look what happened.

“…Our first race together was the Indy 500 and I hardly know the names of the guys on the team.”

Castroneves is not done with changes. He’s ready for even more in 2022, as he returns as a full-time IndyCar driver for the first time since 2017 as MSR fields a two-car team for the first time in its short history in the series.

Even though the new season doesn’t begin for nearly another five months, Castroneves already has set two immediate goals: win a record-setting fifth Indy 500 (a feat that likely would never be topped), and finally capture what has eluded him throughout his career—earning his first IndyCar championship.

And he’s going to do all that in 2022 at the age of 47 (his birthday is May 10), which coincidentally makes him the oldest full-time driver on the IndyCar circuit. Only fellow driver and great friend Tony Kanaan will be older (turns 47 on December 31), but Kanaan will only be racing another part-time schedule next season.

Age is only a number to Castroneves, though. He’s in outstanding physical shape, his reflexes remain cat-like and quick, and he isn’t joking when he believes he can continue racing in IndyCar well into his 50s.

There’s precedent for that: Mario Andretti’s last IndyCar win came when he was 53, back in 1993. He retired for good after the following season at 54.

“I’m very excited, I’m pumped,” Castroneves said. “I’m optimistic for 2022. I just tested again in Indianapolis (last Friday’s Firestone tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway). That was awesome.

“So now I’m really even more optimistic for next year. I’m really looking forward to another season and another Indy 500. But now we also have a lot of work to do because a Cinderella story only happens once.

“People are going to look at us as, ‘Hey, these guys know what they’re doing,’ and that’s right. But we have to be prepared for all circumstances and scenarios. So everybody is really willing to do everything they can to move from an underdog team and now to become a consistent team.”

Meyer Shank Racing will be entering its third full season in IndyCar racing in 2022 (and its sixth season overall). Jack Harvey had been the team’s only driver from its inception up until this season when Castroneves signed to compete in six races.

Harvey—who has yet to win his first IndyCar race—will not return in 2022, having been announced earlier this week as essentially two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato’s replacement at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Replacing Harvey at MSR is another Team Penske alumnus, 2016 IndyCar champ and 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud. With two world-class drivers who have 46 IndyCar wins between them (Castroneves with 31, Pagenaud 15), MSR is definitely a team to be reckoned with in 2022.

“Having Simon coming on board is just going to (enhance) that,” Castroneves told Autoweek. “It’s just a powerful scenario. I worked with him for so many years together, it’s good to have a great relationship with someone that you feel comfortable with, who understands about (being a) team player and understands what we need to do, sharing information as much as we can so that we both benefit from it. He’s the right person to be in this situation with Meyer Shank Racing.”

Even though he spent over two decades with Team Penske, Castroneves’ fourth win at Indy—and in his first-ever start for MSR—had a whole different vibe and feeling than his previous triumphs in the 500.

“Don’t get me wrong, every win (with Team Penske) was and still are very special,” Castroneves said. “But this one makes a difference for so many circumstances. I’m talking about history, I’m talking about fans being able to come back finally (after last year’s 500 was rescheduled and ultimately held without fans due to COVID-19) and were able to witness (his win in May).

“I’m also talking about giving your team its first-ever win in the IndyCar Series. I’m talking about me accomplishing something that people thought wouldn’t be possible.

“But I never stopped believing that (winning a fourth 500) was possible. It just proved that when you believe in something and when you keep working hard and are dedicated and never give up, you can do something great. That’s why this this one is very special for so many reasons.

“And I’m thankful for Roger and Team Penske. Without their knowledge, without over 20 years with their learning curve and understanding, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. That’s why I say it’s a great story, a feel-good movie story.”

Castroneves was shifted from Team Penske’s IndyCar program after the 2017 season to its IMSA program, where he was part of the team that won the 2020 championship, only to see Penske shutter the overall IMSA program at the end of that same season.

Castroneves could very easily have retired as a champion, but the fire still burned within to race again. When team co-owner Michael Shank came to Castroneves late in 2020, Castroneves recalled Shank was almost embarrassed because he knew he likely couldn’t compete financially with offers from other teams.

It wasn’t about money for Castroneves, however. He saw potential and a hunger in MSR that matched exactly what he was looking for, essentially a restart to his career—and his age be damned.

“Sometimes people say you’re running out of time,” Castroneves said. “But the way I look at it is, if I still feel capable, I still believe it.

“And if it is meant to be, it will be. I can’t listen to people saying I’m running out of time. I mean, I can’t. Because otherwise, I’m going to just start listening to noises and what is going to happen is going to stop me from working and stop me from believing.

“And sometimes change is good. In this particular situation, it was a team that wants to do well, and said let’s give him (Castroneves) a chance and let’s put him back on the map because he’s done great and he still’s got it.

“Mario went to 53 or 54. Why not me? I know I can still push it, am dedicated and work hard, so why not? Maybe I’m a late bloomer in order to achieve all these things later but who cares?

“Hey, I’m back in the game again. So I’m ready to keep going.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Source: Read Full Article