Brazilian-born IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves has a special connection to St. Petersburg.
He enjoys the scenery, the people and their hospitality.
“I don’t like it, I love it,” he said. “I mean, every time. It’s amazing. It’s just an incredible place.”
The fact he’s won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg three times might also have something to do with it.
The defending champion and only repeat winner in race history — he won consecutive races in 2006 and 2007 — Castroneves will race today for a fourth victory in the nine-year history of the city’s Grand Prix.
“I always want to win, no matter where it is, but it’s even better when you already have the success in the past because it increases your confidence and I guess that’s another reason to make a run here and do well,” he said.
St. Petersburg fits his style, in more ways than one. Known for his infectious energy and charisma — and signature climbing of the fence after each victory — the 2007 “Dancing with the Stars” winner said the city, and the 1.8-mile course, has always been gracious to him.
Castroneves owns the course record for the fastest race with a time of 1 hour, 56 minutes, 57 seconds.
“First, it’s the first race of the season, so you’re fresh,” he said. “Second, it’s the atmosphere — just great people. Third, when you go to a place where you’re welcome, it’s fun to be there and the course, I guess the layout of the place suits my style. You put all those things together and you end up being successful.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s mastered the track.
“St. Pete is actually very challenging,” he said. “You have a long straightaway, but at the same time, you have, I call a Mickey Mouse section, which is the infield area, and very difficult because it’s tight. At the same time the straightaway is really wide when you go through those areas it’s very tight. It’s a lot of change and it’s dramatic on those certain areas, so that’s why you have to be very concentrated and focused and those are the keys to do well.”
Now in his 16th season and 14th season with Team Penske, Castroneves has won the Indianapolis 500 three times among his 27 victories and 74 top-three finishes. In the past five years, he’s finished second, fourth (three times) and sixth in the IndyCar series. He’s also recorded 258 starts and secured 37 poles, from which he’s won 11 races.
This weekend marks the third consecutive season opener for the IndyCar Series in St. Pete. A veteran competitor, Castroneves said he’s learned to control his anxiety when coming to St. Pete.
“Sometimes when you spend five months not being in a racecar, you feel a little bit of anxiety, so you just got to tone down a little bit and do what you need to do,” he said.
Ten laps were added to this year’s race for a total of 110. Though it’s more wear on the driver, Castroneves knows it was a decision meant for the fans, and he’s a crowd pleaser.
But additional laps might not be an issue for Castroneves, who took on a new style of training in the offseason. CrossFit, a high intensity strength and conditioning workout program, deals with rapid movements in a short period of time.
“Even though we are sitting in the car, we are still pulling a G-force that is extremely heavy on our body,” he said. “You want to concentrate so you have to be ready for two hours. We’re about to lose over the weekend five pounds of liquid and that shows how difficult this is and how good in shape you have to be.”
In professional racing, Castroneves understands the need to take any advantage he can get.
“Every time it’s the first race of the season, people are fresh and ready to go, so you have to be on your toes in that scenario.”