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KRAVITZ: Castroneves is a sports-car driver now, but he still owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Castroneves had opportunities to earn a full-time IndyCar ride elsewhere, but stayed with Penske to drive sports cars.
Helio Castroneves, right, of Brazil, talks with Roger Penske before a practice session for the IndyCar Grand Prix auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WTHR) - Roger Penske called, and when The Captain calls, you answer, even if you’re a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the best open-wheel drivers of this generation like Helio Castroneves. The owner of Team Penske was calling two years ago to ask Castroneves if he would meet with his team’s boss up in Detroit, Penske’s home base. So Castroneves packed a bag and made his way to the Motor City.

Here’s the deal, Penske told Castroneves, who was coming off another successful IndyCar season. We have some different plans for you and our team. We’re going to field one fewer car in the IndyCar series and we’d like you to drive a sports car for our growing sports car program.

Castroneves was mildly surprised but was willing to hear Penske out. Understand, Penske is the man who gave Castroneves the opportunity to not only become a premium driver, but promoted his desire to grow the sport by engaging in activities like dancing on “Dancing With The Stars’’ back in 2007.

“Some people, when they have a change after doing something for so long, they think, `Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘’ Castroneves said recently. “What is the scenario here? I’m still capable of winning a lot more races in IndyCar. But when Roger says, `Hey, I really want you to drive the sports car,’ you listen. I told him, I still have a lot of fuel left for IndyCar, but Roger said, `Let’s put that fuel into the sports car.’

“When you see someone like Roger, who’s given me such an opportunity, you know he’s making the right decision. I’m glad he did it. I’m glad I did it. I’m excited. It’s a new chapter in my life. When Roger makes a decision, it’s not for today or tomorrow, it’s for five years down the line. I understood that.’’

Castroneves had opportunities to earn a full-time IndyCar ride elsewhere. Team owners came calling. One of the sport’s biggest names was a free agent. Castroneves listened, considered his options, then ultimately chose to remain loyal to Penske, who owns the best racing team on the planet. Loyalty in sports. What a strange concept.

“I looked at different possibilities and different scenarios, but then I thought, `Could I drive (in IndyCar) one or two more years and then what?’ ‘’ Castroneves said. “Having this relationship – we’ll hit 20 years together soon – it’s hard to jeopardize 20 good years for one or two years.’’

He knew Penske was all-in on the sports-car side when the team raced in Daytona. Penske remained awake and alert throughout the entire 24-hour-long marathon. Sleep? It’s overrated. “My respect went way up,’’ Castroneves said.

Most drivers would view the move as an insult, or at least a demotion, especially one year after finishing second in the Indianapolis behind eventual winner Takuma Sato. But there is no sense when you’re talking to the ebullient Brazilian that he feels like he’s been put out to pasture. If he wins Sunday – and he can – it will not cross his mind to look at Penske and say, “Take THAT!!’ Castroneves is looking at the long game and believes he can continue to race for another seven seasons or even longer. He is in immaculate condition. He looks at Tom Brady and Roger Federer, two 40-somethings who are near or at the top of their games, and wonders, “Why not me?’’

“Age today is just a number,’’ he said. “If you still have the fire and the interest, it’s my passion, the sky is the limit. So hopefully seven more years, if you want to put a number on it. You look at guys now, Brady, Federer. With technology today, the way people maintain themselves, I feel like I can just get better with all the experience I have, especially here (in Indianapolis).’’

Ah yes, Indianapolis. Want to know something crazy? He can win this race for the fourth time, placing himself in some rarefied air. After spending the entire season in sports cars, he took to the new IndyCar and was like a fish in water. On the Saturday of qualifying day, he was No. 1 on the speed charts. Then he finished second behind Ed Carpenter, Jr. in the Fast Nine. This race is in his blood. Don’t be surprised if and when Spiderman takes another climb up on the catch-fence near the Yard of Bricks.

“This place,’’ he said the other day, “is in my DNA.’’

Castroneves understands the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in ways other drivers can only hope to dream. He understands its quirks, its rhythms, all of it. Doesn’t matter that he hasn’t spent much time in an IndyCar this season; shoot, it hasn’t meant anything to Danica Patrick, either, who came over after spending the most recent portion of her career in NASCAR.

Why, he was asked, is the Indianapolis such a difficult and unique race?

A huge smile creased his face.

“Ah, you think: 3 ½ hours, 33 drivers, some have won it already, some of have come close, some are just starting, plus the new car, and who knows how the car will react if it’s really cold or really hot,’’ he said. “Pit stops. Put all this together, and so many things can go wrong and so few things can go right. It’s one of the toughest marathons you can possibly imagine. That’s why it’s such a thrill when you win it.’’

Just because he’s no longer part of the Verizon IndyCar circuit doesn’t mean you should rule out another fence-climbing expedition. Castroneves may be driving sports cars for a living, but winning here, that’s his life’s goal, and what he does better than anybody in the current field.