June 1, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Gregg Krupa

Helio Castroneves' victory is crowning achievement for Roger Penske

Detroit — To say Helio Castroneves was motivated when he came to town earlier this week severely understates the point.

He had just lost out to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the second closest Indianapolis 500 in history, and he felt he should have won the first race of the season, the Grand Prix of Alabama.

It had been 13 years since Castroneves won in Detroit.

Having raced for Roger Penske for 15 years, his drought in what is effectively his hometown, and the dominance of Honda over Chevrolet in recent years on Belle Isle, also focused Castroneves’ desire.

And, on Sunday, Castroneves took care of all of Team Penske’s business. He won the second leg of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, just ahead of his teammate, Will Power, who won the first one, Saturday, giving Penske and Chevrolet a sweep on what was a remarkable weekend of racing.

“For me, I was coming out of a tough weekend, a good weekend in Indianapolis. But here, we turned the page,” Castroneves said.

“I was like, OK guys, it was a good weekend. Unfortunately we didn’t win. But we were close and we showed potential. Let’s keep going.

”My engineer and I we worked very hard, and I said I want to win this race as bad as anybody.”

Special victory

He won his first race in Detroit in 2000. When he did, he leaped out of his car near the finish line and, in a signature celebration now famous around the world, he climbed a retaining fence in front of the fans, and celebrated with them.

It was an enormous populist gesture that helped bring racing directly to the people.

When he did it again in 2001, it seemed like it would become routine. Then, for more than a decade, it did not happen, at all.

On Sunday, he and several members of his team finally re-enacted the victory climb. And the Detroit crowd, with the world headquarters of General Motors looming in the sky just to the west, went wild.

It would be hard to imagine a more popular win in motor sports in the Motor City.

“For me, being biased, because this is where I got my first win and having Roger on my radio and knowing how important it is for Detroit and Chevy, it is special.

“At the beginning of the season Chevy said we want to win Indianapolis and Detroit. We were close to the Indy 500. But we were able to deliver two wins here in Detroit.

“And, for me, having a lot of friends already here in Detroit, mutual friends from Roger and being so many years with him — it’s just special.”

Castroneves had the hot car for both races at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park.

On Saturday, after winning the pole for the first of the twin races, Castroneves‘ intentions and strategies were foiled by untimely yellow flags.

But on Sunday, he would not be denied.

Admiring teammate

And Power would not deny him.

On two late restarts after yellow flags, Castroneves pulled quickly ahead of Power, who seemed content to both keep Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon in third and fourth place and to watch his stablemate win.

“On the last two restarts I wasn’t going to attack Helio hard,” Power said. “The last thing Roger would want to see is two cars into the wall. So I was going to be nice there, unless he made a big mistake.”

Power made clear he received no orders to let Castroneves win. That is not Penske’s way.

“We’re never told that,” Power said. “Roger is a racer. Never team orders; never!

“He wouldn’t have said a thing, if I attacked Helio, and went hard at him.”

Power said after the race he marvels at how Castroneves is getting better with age.

“The guy has passion for winning and motor sport itself,” he said. “This sport is very tough on you.”

Castroneves is feeling it.

“I think I’m becoming wiser,” Castroneves said.

“I am able to pay attention to details better than before, able to work with engineers better than before.”

He is even better on the fences.

“Before I was just going and running out of breath. Now I’m able to at least take my time, not rush into it and have time to talk to the interview after I come down.”

Despite long success with Penske Racing, he has never won the championship, despite coming close more than a few times.

Among the accomplishments of Penske’s boys this weekend was both Power and Castroneves vaulting over Hunter-Reay in the Indy Car Series championship. Power leads Castroneves by 17 points.

And now the series heads to Texas, one of Castroneves’s most successful venues.

The veteran driver knows he has something going on now.

“Yeah, we are on it,” he said. “We are not playing around.

“I’m already thinking about Texas, to be honest.”



Helio Castroneves joins Roger Penske on the winner's podium on Sunday. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News