INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves is back at his favorite track chasing history yet again.
After four years of answering constant questions about pursuing a historic fourth Indianapolis 500 win, the Brazilian is eager to end all the talk.
“You’ve got to dream big. You can’t get frustrated,” Castroneves said. “We (Team Penske) do talk about it, probably more than anybody.”
Few drivers in Sunday’s race know this track better than Castroneves.
He won here as a rookie in 2001, became the first back-to-back champion since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971, and after winning the pole in 2003, wound up settling for second to teammate Gil de Ferran. He won again in 2009, becoming the first foreign-born, three-time winner, and now sits one win away from joining Indy royalty — A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, Penske’s driving coach — as the only four-time winners.
Castroneves hasn’t just dominated race day. He won the pole again in 2007, 2009 and 2010, becoming the first back-to-back pole winner since Mears in 1988 and 1989. His four pole wins are tied for the second-most ever, trailing only Mears’ six, and Castroneves has become a fixture in the relatively new pole shootout, too.
Those who have driven with and against him understand why he’s been so good on the Indy track.
“He’s just got a great mindset for this circuit,” said Chip Ganassi driver Ryan Briscoe, who won the pole in 2012 as Castroneves’ teammate. “He’s got very smooth hands, he’s very well mentally prepared and he thrives around here when it’s windy. It’s no fluke he’s won it three times.”
Lately, though, things have been a little tougher.
He has finished ninth, 17th, 10th and sixth in last four races here, leading a total of just four laps on race day. Castroneves hasn’t even started on the front row since 2010. On Sunday, he’ll start fourth, the inside of Row 2, after posting a four-lap qualifying average of 230.649 mph — the seventh fastest on the traditional 33-car starting grid.
Briscoe thinks the reason for that has more to do with the competition than with anything Castroneves has or hasn’t done on the track.
“I can tell you that the last three years, we’ve never had a field so close and so competitive,” Briscoe said. “Back in the day, it had a little more to do with who you were driving for, Penske, Ganassi, whoever. It’s so close now, you’ve got to make sure you’re in the top 10 at the end of the race.”
A year ago, Castroneves and Scotland’s Dario Franchitti were both trying to join one of racing’s most prestigious clubs. But Franchitti was forced to retire after he sustained a severe concussion in a frightening crash last October.
There are plenty of other differences this year, too.
Castroneves sounds more relaxed and more confident. He says he’s more motivated, too, driving the No. 3 Pennzoil car that carries the same paint scheme and design Mears made famous during his career with Penske. Castroneves also will be hearing the voices of Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indy history with 15, and Mears on his headset Sunday — the first time Castroneves will have both on his radio team at Indy, an experience he plans to enjoy.
“He (Mears) is a wise man,” Castroneves said. “He’s an experienced person, and I think over the years, he’s learned how to understand me. It’s more about what we can do with my experience and his knowledge.”
Mears also understands what it’s like to cope with the pressure of trying to win four.
He got there faster than any of three four-time winners, capturing wins in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1981. Unser needed 17 years. Foyt took 26. A win Sunday would make Castroneves the second fastest, achieving the feat in 13 years, and give him the distinction of being the first non-American in the four-time winners circle.
And after four years of missing out, Castroneves has no intention of playing down the significance of fulfilling this rare quest.
“I imagine it, I dream about it, but I don’t think about what it would be like,” Castroneves said. “But I hope I can tell you after Sunday.”