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Racing
May 2003

Indy 500: Boys from Brazil Raring to Win

Mark your calendars for May 25th. Penske, Toyota position
Hélio Castroneves for three-peat at Indianapolis 500. It will
be a superhero face off: "Spiderman" vs. "X-man."
True to the form of 2001 and 2002, Brazilians have galvanized the
imagination of their fans and continue to win converts.

Phillip Wagner

Brazilian Formula Indy racing fans can look forward to "Spiderman" vs. "X-man" now that Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan have qualified at #1 and #2 for the May 25th running of the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves has been frequently compared to the highly publicized web-crawler for his post-victory fence climbing antics, and 'pole king' Tony Kanaan has thrown down a challenge by identifying himself with a super hero more to his own liking.

Fellow Brazilians Gil de Ferran qualified 10th and Felipe Giaffóne a respectable 16th. Airton Dare is still hoping to secure a ride in time to qualify on 'Bump Day' May 18th. Raul Boesel has retired to São Paulo. Bruno Junqueira and Roberto Moreno are currently running in the Champ car circuit.

The ever ebullient two-time defending champion Castroneves had to celebrate his May 10th 'Pole Day' birthday, a day late. Violent weather postponed Saturday qualifications and, except for some light-hearted horseplay with Kanaan and de Ferran during a televised Saturday night interview, track tension kept Hélio's focus on racing, rather than aging, until he could claim his place in the 2003 edition of the "mother of all Formula Indy races".

At Hélio's post qualification pole-winner press conference, team owner Roger Penske quoted Rick Mears as having said many times that "there are two races in Indianapolis, one for the pole and one for the race itself". Hélio agrees, and wishes the two would be treated as individual competitions. "Qualifications" he said "are so much different from the race you know because you don't have to worry about things like how much fuel do you have or how much tire wear. In a way I think it's really the purest form of racing. There isn't anybody else on the track, so you don't have to think about who might be on your left or right, or who is coming up behind you. It's all about setting up the car for the conditions of that day and then just going out and doing it."

Weather, an ever-present wild card at Indianapolis in May, continued to taunt competitors on the rescheduled-to-Mothers-Day Sunday qualifications. Winds continually raked the oval, with gusts consistently reaching 35 to 38 miles an hour. Several drivers complained that wind driven 'push' in some of the turns caused them to back off, losing precious momentum. Three sentimental favorites from legendary racing families, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and AJ Foyt IV could fare no better than qualifying at13, 17 and 23.

True to the form of 2001 and 2002, Brazilians have galvanized the imagination of their fans and continue to win converts. Brazilian flags waved from the stands and fans at the fence cheered wildly when Tony Kanaan broke the 231 mile-per-hour four-lap average and chanted "Hélio! Hélio!" when Castroneves edged him out later in the day. In each case the Brazilians can be credited with talent, perseverance and determination. But Hélio was quick to thank owner Roger Penske, jibing playfully that "he's been successful before I was even born probably", and power plant provider Toyota, which pulled a coup by grabbing the pole in its first year at Indy.

No one Outclasses Hélio

Honda, which powers Kanaan and team Green-Andretti, also emerged as a dominant force in its first year while Chevy fared poorly. Sam Hornish Jr., in the 18th spot, was the top Chevy powered qualifier and six of the seven bottom slots were all driving Chevy powered entries. Toyota and Honda clearly differentiated themselves with superior engineering. Although Hélio and teammate Gil were each powered by Toyota, each was running with a different chassis.

Owner Penske offered "The fact that they picked different (chassis) was interesting. Obviously we were able to get Hélio confident. Gil was never as confident with his car … never got as free as Hélio did. At the end of the day (Hélio) had already run over 230, almost 231 (in practice) and it was just a matter of getting it all on the four laps which, obviously, he was able to do".

Hélio lavished praise on Penske team-president Tim Cindin's leadership, the technical and pit crew and de Ferran. "The success is not only mine, for sure. Tim Cindric has been phenomenal. He always focuses not only on the good results, but on what we have to do the next week. We know that at the same time we're winning (now) we need to work hard to keep getting those results. It's the entire team, and that includes my teammate Gil because we work together to make the team progress and develop. It's Tim and everybody. I feel that everybody is contributing something to the team now, we all really work like a team".

A Different Twist for Tony

Like Hélio, Tony Kanaan was quick to thank others, particularly Michael Andretti, the team, and the mentoring of Michael's legendary father Mario. But Kanaan's good fortune was also considerably enhanced by fate. Tony, who will start next to Hélio, held the pole through most of the afternoon. But it's a position he would never have had an opportunity to compete for if events had unfolded according to plan. With Kanaan recuperating from a serious wrist injury, it had not been anticipated that Tony would try to qualify.

Michael lured father Mario out of retirement to qualify Kanaan's car for him. If that had happened Tony would have been forced to start from the back of the pack, regardless of how well Mario performed in qualifications. But in an earlier May test run, Mario encountered debris on the track that literally launched him airborne. His car flipped end over end repeatedly before miraculously landing on all four tires. So much for "Plan A". Wrist brace and all, Tony would have to qualify his own car.

But even with the constraint of the brace on his injured arm Tony seemed destined to defend his rising reputation as a "Pole King". In every race but one this year he'd won the pole, and in that race the pole was decided by point standings coming into the race rather than a competition. Coupling his injury with the added challenge of having to fight strong winds it seemed improbable that Kanaan could post impressive speeds. And in his post qualifying press conference Tony described having to contort his arms in the cockpit, holding the wheel with his braced hand and reaching across the cockpit with the other. The media and track fans alike could only marvel at his performance.

The Numbers Game

So what are the odds? Can Hélio "three-peat"? Only five previous starters in Indianapolis have won from the pole. Rick Mears, a team Penske mentor to Castroneves, did it in 1979, 1988 and 1991. Bobby Unser won from the pole in 1981 and Al Unser Jr. in 1994. And consider these numerically coincident facts. Hélio represents the 12th Indy pole winner for team Penske, but team Penske has already won 12 races here.

Hélio's car number is three. Unser drove car #3 when he won Indy from the pole, and Mears did likewise when he won from the pole in 1991. Those were the last two times a #3 car was on the pole at Indianapolis. So Hélio could also become the third consecutive #3 to win from the pole. He can become the sixth car overall to win at Indy starting from the pole; teammate de Ferran drives car #6. And Hélio can become the first driver ever to win three consecutive races at Indianapolis. Hélio, as I already noted, drives car #3.

According to owner Penske: "Both drivers (Hélio and Gil) were out all morning and we had never had that kind of wind situation. We had the cars trimmed out with just as light a down force as you can have. Hélio … said he couldn't have passed his rookie test (under those conditions). It (his car) didn't want to go that fast the way the wind was; we made the decision that we were not going to qualify (early). So we told the guys let's not get excited. I was hoping the wind was gonna come down at some point, but (the extra time) gave both drivers a chance to sort out their cars and it turned out to be the right thing to do."

Tim Cindin added: "I think the key to do what we did today was to have a team and drivers that are patient. It takes a lot of patience to let the weather go by, watch these (other) guys put their numbers on the board and wonder … when it's gonna be your turn. That was the biggest thing for us, just tweaking the car a little bit at a time and deciding when is the right time to go. You've got to have a guy (driver) you've got confidence in, especially on a day like today. The more you run the more risk you take".

Note that Hélio's 21 practice laps were the most he'd run all month! "You've got to have confidence that he'll keep that thing off the fence. And the fact that your team has the other car ready to go really gives you the confidence to go hang it out there". So how did he do? Helio's four qualification laps were his fastest four laps since arriving back in Indianapolis.

Brazzil Magazine asked owner Roger Penske and Penske team President Tim Cindin if, given that the "Boys from Brazil" have dominated the past couple of years, whether either of them had any feelings about how their aptitude, discipline or aggressiveness may be contributing to their success. Penske responded "Well, you've seen some great (Brasilians) driving with Fittipaldi, Senna, Tony Kanaan, Giaffóne, Hélio, Gil … Their families seem to start them in go-kart racing early. These guys are racers. There's no question about it. To see Hélio get the pole, the confidence that he had, he's just an outgoing guy. He's made a great, great difference to our team, a great contribution, he and Gil".

Tim added "Both of those guys (Hélio and Gil) are completely dedicated to what they do. They don't hang out at night. I mean, they know how to have fun when its time to have fun. But I think it really comes down to their dedication and their work ethic. They know when to say go and when its time to put a number on the board they give it everything they have". That's, no doubt, what we can expect again on May 25th … from Hélio, Tony, Gil, Felipe and—if he can secure a ride—from Airton.

The Brazilians have accounted for each victory, eight top ten finishes and both fastest rookies over the past two years. Mark your calendars and prepare to fire up the grill and set out your Brazilian flags on May 25th. And then when the day comes, dial up the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing", which will be broadcast nationally on radio and televised in all but the Indianapolis market. Win or lose, it seems certain the Brazilians won't be disappointing anyone with their performance.

Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor, covering the Indianapolis 500 for the 3rd consecutive year. Contact Phillip at pwagneei.net. His Indy 500 coverage from the previous two years, including an article that followed recent interviews with Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, may be viewed from the left frame select bar at his site at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm.

 

 



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