He's dancing with the cars

Castroneves is a TV star now

On Sunday, Helio Castroneves will try to become the fourth driver to win three Indianapolis 500s in a single decade. On Sunday, Helio Castroneves will try to become the fourth driver to win three Indianapolis 500s in a single decade. (AJ Mast/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Cliff Brunt
Associated Press / May 22, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS - Helio Castroneves has been living at a relatively pedestrian pace since he got back behind the wheel of a racecar.

In the months following his "Dancing with the Stars" title last November, he called off his engagement, went on a national tour with the other dancers, and had a seemingly endless stream of interviews and appearances.

And, oh yes, he's also been racing his Team Penske IndyCar.

Now the charismatic Brazilian with the big smile and fancy footwork is focused on his true passion - driving.

"After the 'Dancing' and the tour, I couldn't wait to get back into a racecar because it slowed down [my life]," Castroneves told the Associated Press last week in his garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Literally, the speed is going faster, but the rest of the outside stuff really slowed down a lot."

Castroneves said his appearance on one of America's most popular television shows served its purpose because it brought the Indy Racing League to a new group of potential fans. He hopes some remember him and watch the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, when he tries to add to his wins in 2001 and 2002.

"People that have no idea about racing know my name," he said. "Probably now they're going to be tuning into racing. That's what I want. It obviously helped my name, and I believe it helped this series to be out there. I think it was a win-win situation.

New fans could see Castroneves join an elite group. Only three drivers - Mauri Rose in the 1940s, A.J. Foyt in the 1960s, and Al Unser in the 1970s - have won three Indy 500s in a single decade.

Castroneves has driven in seven Indy 500s, placing in the top three four times and the top 10 six times. He finished third last year and will start fourth in the 33-car field this year.

"I do feel I have a great car," he said. "Inside second row is a fantastic place to start."

Castroneves's popularity off the track didn't cost him with diehard fans, either. MainGate, a company that tallies merchandise sales, said last week that his numbers at tracks were up 68 percent from last year at the same time.

Castroneves says none of that affects him.

"Certainly, I got a little more exposure, but I'm still the same," he said. "I love what I do, I enjoy being here in racecars. This is my world, and that's what I've lived for all my life."

Castroneves, whose résumé still lacks a series championship, leads the IRL standings even though he hasn't won a race this year. He placed fourth in the opener at Homestead, second at St. Petersburg, second at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, and fourth at Kansas Speedway last month.

"It's consistency," he said. "So far, we've been in the right place at the right time. I do believe this year it's going to take that to win the championship."

He'd like to balance his consistency with a few victories.

"Yes, you do have to win as well," he said. "Certainly, other teams seem to be a little more aggressive, but we're right there. We just need to find a little more and work a little more to get that win."

Castroneves didn't wait until May to show up in Indianapolis. He and partner Julianne Hough danced between the first and second quarters of an Indiana Pacers game Nov. 2, nearly a month before he was announced as the season five winner.

"It was scary at first because people know me here as a racecar driver," he said. "I can't thank enough the Indianapolis and Indiana area for the support because I received a lot of votes from here. Without those votes, I wouldn't have been able to win."

Though he has received a lot of positive buzz, he also got unexpected attention from tabloids. His engagement to longtime girlfriend Ali Vasquez was broken off right after he won the "Dancing" title, and he was besieged with rumors that he was dating Hough, even though he consistently has denied a romantic relationship.

Castroneves never ran from the questions or changed his approach to people after the attention increased.

"Everything was normal, natural, and the way it comes is the way it goes," he said. "I wasn't trying to 'Oh, I have to go hide myself.' If you want to ask me, go ahead and ask, there is nothing to hide. That's why it turned out to be good - because people got to find out who I am."

Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division, said that outgoing attitude is what he wanted the mainstream to see.

"He has such an engaging personality, and America fell in love with him," Angstadt said. "And every time they would introduce him as two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves - huge exposure for us."

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