Helio Castroneves is at the center of the IndyCar universe


As the world turns, so does our image of race drivers.

Or, to put it another way, would A.J. Foyt have gone on television to do ballroom dancing?

Helio Castroneves is the anti-A.J., except when making Indy cars go fast. He is smooth, good-looking, media-savvy. He works out daily, weighs about as much as Foyt’s bib overalls, wears sunglasses in the shade and plays tennis.

In his prime and time, A.J. was gruff, never met a reporter he didn’t dislike, got his exercise under the hood of a car and would have considered tennis a sissy sport.

Helio can go on the Letterman show and banter with Dave. A.J. wouldn’t banter, he’d snarl. A.J. was a good old boy, a dirt-under-the-fingernails race driver. Helio may get dirt under his fingernails, but they’ll be well-scrubbed by the time the pretty TV interviewer approaches with her three inane questions.

A.J.’s generation was a Wide World of Sports, where there was a weekly thrill of victory and agony of defeat. Helio’s is YouTubed and Twittered.

Yet, both men are legendary in Indy Car racing. Foyt won four Indy 500s. Castroneves, only 34, has already won three, including last year’s.

When Foyt won his Indy 500s, he drank his milk, lusted for a couple of beers and endured reporters and photographers as best he could. When Castroneves won his, he enhanced the story for the media by climbing the wire fence near the starting line. That earned him the nickname Spiderman.

In two weeks, the Brazilian will cruise the streets of downtown Long Beach, navigating the pretzel course at speeds averaging 85 mph and hitting more than twice that on the straights. It will be the 36th year of racing there, and one of the stars of this edition of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be Castroneves, who will be one of the stars of every race in this year’s Izod IndyCar Series.

Castroneves, son of businessman Helio Castroneves and Sandra Gomez Alves and brother of Kati, was 15 when he knew he would become a race car driver.

“I played with matchbox cars when I was a kid,” he says. “Soccer was a big deal in Brazil, but not for me.”

His father, whose company distributed tubing for ethanol manufacturing, owned a race car and entered it in tracks around Sao Paulo.

“It was like a stock car,” Castroneves says. “We never won a race. Maybe some poles.”

Father took son along and soon young Helio was competing in go-karts. His need for speed was quickly there.

“I liked it,” he says. “I liked how it felt to be connected to a machine.”

Father encouraged son, picked up the considerable expenses that racing brings with it, and soon, as Castroneves says now, “My dream became my family’s dream.”

And so the journey began, with Castroneves going to Europe by 1995 to race in Formula 3 competition and the family along for most of the rides. Eventually, business declined, promises were not kept by sponsors and the need to keep pouring money into his son’s racing career cost Castroneves’ father his company.

“For a while,” his son says, “the family house was in jeopardy.”

In 2000, Castroneves signed to drive for Roger Penske and life became good.

“People have a saying,” Castroneves says. “If you play musical chairs, Roger will always have a seat for you when the music stops.”

Castroneves repaid Penske’s faith by winning the Indy 500 in 2001 and 2002. When he finished second in 2003, that run of first-first-second was the best in Indy history.

Life quick-stepped through 2008, when Castrovenes continued to win at least one race each year and when, after a 10-minute chat with Olympic skating star Apolo Anton Ohno, winner of TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” the year before, Castroneves decided to try it.

He won in 2008 and that success moved him from the cover of Road and Track magazine to the celebrity pages of People.

“My sister is a professional ballerina,” Castroneves says. “She does this all her life. I go for 3½ months and get the trophy. But she never said a word. Only, ‘Listen to your partner.’ ”

The charmed life stopped for a while late in 2008, when he was indicted for federal tax evasion. But he was acquitted and now Castroneves, still driving the Penske No. 3, will be looking to improve on record career winnings of $15,562,678 he carried into 2010.

Oh yes, there will be a book, out soon. It is called “Victory Road: The Ride of My Life.” Foyt’s would be called: “Kickin’ Butt and Bumpin’ Fenders.”