When Helio Castroneves was asked to participate in a recent video conference with Team Penske, he thought they might wish him goodbye and give him a virtual sendoff following an outstanding 21-year career with the team.
Instead, Castroneves was welcomed into the Team Penske Hall of Fame.
Team Penske President Tim Cindric delivered the surprise in person when he traveled to Castroneves’ Miami home to officially induct him into the Team Penske Hall of Fame.
“Oh my God, what a surprise,” Castroneves said. “I was actually thinking I was just going to say goodbye to the team, a farewell. It was not the proper way because you want to be with your friends and the people who helped you climb these ladders, but we had to do it on the computer because of social distancing.
“When they told me I was in the Hall of Fame, I was speechless. It was an amazing surprise. A perfect way to close the season, for sure.”
Throughout Team Penske’s incredible history, there have been many great drivers that have competed for the team, beginning with Mark Donohue in the 1960s and early 1970s. From that point forward, nearly every INDYCAR racing legend except for A.J. Foyt, Scott Dixon, Michael Andretti and a few others have been part of Penske’s operation.
From Rick Mears to Al Unser, Bobby Unser to Danny Sullivan, Tom Sneva to Josef Newgarden, Mario Andretti to Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi to Juan Pablo Montoya, and many, many more, no driver had a longer career at Team Penske than Castroneves.
“I don’t see myself at the same level as Rick Mears,” Castroneves said. “I feel that I have so much to give, but I feel very humbled to be compared and in the same club. My dedication to the sport is paying off and being recognized.
“(Former Penske executive) Walt Czarnecki mentioned a long time ago, pressure is what you make of it, it’s all about expectations. I was expected to deliver, and Team Penske gave me the tools that I needed to win.
“I’ll never be in the same club with so many incredible drivers, but I feel so blessed to be in this position and have myself surrounded by so many amazing people.
“But I’m also excited for a new beginning because we can have great, amazing people moving forward. This is absolutely incredible.”
Castroneves had a dramatic impact on INDYCAR during his Team Penske tenure. He won three Indianapolis 500s and is the only driver to win his first two starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Although he never won the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, Castroneves finally claimed a title when his Acura Team Penske operation won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this season.
Ironically, Castroneves’ career at Team Penske nearly didn’t happen. In the final weekend of the 1999 CART season, Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore were introduced as the new driver duo for the team beginning in 2000.
Tragically, the very next day, Moore was killed in a crash in Turn 2 at Auto Club Speedway in the final race of the year.
A young Brazilian driver from Hogan Racing was asked to be Moore’s replacement at Team Penske.
From that point forward, Castroneves made the most of his opportunity, earned his first CART victory in the 2000 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle and eventually won 30 INDYCAR races for Team Penske.
In a one-month period, Castroneves celebrated his first series championship at Sebring, Florida, on Nov. 14 and was inducted into the Team Penske Hall of Fame on Dec. 11.
“It was a huge surprise to see Tim Cindric come to Florida,” Castroneves said. “I thought we were going to say goodbye before I start a new beginning. All of my friends on Team Penske will always stay. Having Roger Penske, Walt Czarnecki, Ina Broman, Dan Luginbuhl, Rick Rinaman, Lisa Boggs and Susan Bradshaw and Tim Lombardi, it was so many people from the past. It was absolutely special. They are part of this and made me who I am today. They molded me as a young driver from Brazil to a mature driver from Brazil, plus all of my teammates.
“Even Sam Hornish, who I had not seen in long time, was part of it. Ryan Briscoe, as well. It was so cool.”
When Team Penske raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 for the first time since 1994 and then made the leap from CART to what was then known as the Indy Racing League in 2001, Castroneves’ fiercest rival was Hornish.
He was a very young, quiet kid from Defiance, Ohio, who raced for Pennzoil Panther Racing.
“Sam was a tough one,” Castroneves said. “He discovered things we never thought we would be able to. We wondered if they were playing within the rules, but when Sam joined the team, he was actually that good. That is when we realized we need to improve. I need to push to the limits.
“Everyone I worked with, I learned so much and that was all the teammates from Gil, Sam, Ryan Briscoe, Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud. It was incredible to have that opportunity to learn from each of those talented guys.
“The thing about Team Penske, they put everybody in position to win the big races like the Indianapolis 500. I grabbed it, and that is what I did.
“I can’t believe it, 21 years, but I’m also ready for a new team and I’m ready to see what I can do there. Hopefully we will have this conversation 20 years from now. That’s my goal.”
After 21 seasons and 344 combined career starts, Castroneves produced 36 wins (fifth in team history), 60 poles (first in team history), 107 podium results (first in team history) and 160 top-five finishes (second in team history).
With his induction, Castroneves joins previous Team Penske Hall of Fame honorees: Penske (2016), Donohue (2016), Mears (2017), Karl Kainhofer (2017), Rusty Wallace (2018), Czarnecki (2018), Don Miller (2019) and Luginbuhl (2019).
Inductions into the Team Penske Hall of Fame occur annually. Each year, inductees are chosen from current and former drivers, employees and partners that have made a significant impact on the team and its history. The Hall of Famers are honored both at an event and within the walls of the Team Penske facility located in Mooresville, North Carolina.
Castroneves has earned his place in the Team Penske Hall of Fame, but at 45 he isn’t finished in INDYCAR. Beginning next season, Castroneves joins Meyer Shank Racing for a six-race Honda effort in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and will compete in selected IMSA races in Wayne Taylor Racing’s Acura program.