Team Penske Q&A - Castroneves being sent to 'farm' club
In the interest of time, we ask any questions pertaining to specifics surrounding the Acura program be held until Friday. Team Penske president Tim Cindric, president and COO of Honda Performance, Art St. Cyr, and Helio will hold a media availability to discuss specifics surrounding what today's announcement means for the Acura program at 1:30pm ET on Friday afternoon at the Road Atlanta media center.
Now joining us on the teleconference today is Chairman of Penske Corporation, Roger Penske, and the longest tenured driver in Team Penske history, Helio Castroneves.
Roger, transitioning Helio to the Acura program not only brings an established racing star to the sports car program but someone with experience in these types of cars. Why is now the right time to transition Helio over to the new IMSA program?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, thank you, and thank you to everyone that's joined our call today. Obviously this has been an announcement that many people have thought about and maybe made their own comments on. But I think for me, as we manage our business outside racing and inside, we always have a plan, and I go back to the beginning of 2016 when I sat down with Helio and talked about his future, the future of the team, and we talked about that there was a potential sports car program that was in the future, and he would be someone that we would consider running in that program based on his availability and what he wanted to do, and obviously there's been lots of speculation about that, but until we had a firm contract with Acura and Honda, we were unable to make a commitment, and that might be some of the reasons that we've hesitated to make a firm commitment.
But to me, this gives Helio a longer future in his racing career. He's been with us as the longest tenured driver, and I think the fact that he gets to go back to the Indy 500 again in 2018 and also will run in the road race the weekend before gives him the chance to stay with one foot in INDYCAR, but also a chance to bring our Acura sports car team into championships hopefully as we go forward over the next however many years.
A great opportunity for him, and along with this, many don't know that Helio became a business partner of mine in a major automobile dealership in Pennsylvania, and I think as I look to him and help him build his future career, I think when you put these all together, he's in the right place.
MODERATOR: Helio, you've accomplished a lot in your career from your 30 IndyCar wins to your three Indianapolis 500 victories. Now you have a chance to be a 24 Hours of Daytona winner and race for the championship in IMSA. What would it mean for you in your career to go out and win the Daytona 24 and maybe even capture another championship for Team Penske as they start this new venture?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Yeah, thank you, everyone, to join us.
But I felt that this program, I felt with the family that I created inside the team with the professionalism, just for me, it's my career. It's building to this. It means a lot.
I'm excited because not only are we going to start working with Honda again, and obviously they gave me a lot of wins, as well, together. Every time you put this perspective looking forward to be competitive, looking forward to keep driving, which that's what I love, driving is my passion, it's in my blood, and if this can continue moving forward and prolong my racing career, I'm all up for it. So I'm really, really excited for this new opportunity.
Q: Roger, I wanted to ask if this confirms that you will be reducing to three full‑time IndyCars in 2018?
ROGER PENSKE: Yeah, that is correct.
Q: And Helio, I wanted to ask you if you will get any seat time in the IndyCar before you return at GP Indy next May.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I'm not sure how the program is going to go obviously from here now. The focus is going to be in the sports car program, and I believe that similar thing happened to Juan Pablo this year when he had some testing before. I am assuming that would be the same kind of scenario, the same way, especially that the cars are new now, different aerodynamics. So it would be important for us to understand a little bit more about the 2018 car.
However, my teammates, Josef, Simon and Will, are already going to be up to speed, so I won't have any issue at all. But I assume it will be the similar program.
ROGER PENSKE: Let me answer that. I'm assuming that there will be testing for Indianapolis, that we'll have a chance to include Helio as you would anyone else who is entering that race, and of course with his chance to get back in the car at the road race, also, will give the crew ‑‑ and the good news here is that we'll have the same engineer and same crew roughly that has worked with him in the Indy side, will be with him on Memorial Day. I think the plan is solid, and just the chance for him to have a chance to drive the new car will be something that we'll be sure we make happen.
Q: If I could just ask you what it means to be a Penske man for life. It seems like this is an opportunity, like Mears has been given after he retired after the '92 season, that you're pretty much a Penske guy for life, and how important that is, because there's a lot of drivers out there that have raced for Roger but there's only a few that have really been with him for life?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, I still think Rick Mears is the Penske guy, to be honest, and I'm just trying to follow his steps. Hopefully I can, meaning I can get to join him next year, winning four times at the Indy 500.
Q: But when they have that opening bell, when they ring the opening bell to start the season at St. Pete, how nervous are you going to be or how antsy are you going to be that you're not going to be in one of those cars?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Listen, life goes on. You've just got to turn the page and keep going the next chapter in life, and that's the way I see it. I'm excited actually that I have an opportunity to go back to the Indy 500. That's definitely something that I feel that not only myself but Roger, Cindric and the entire organization wants to do it. We're so close this year to winning a No. 4, and I do believe we have a phenomenal opportunity to win No. 4 next year.
Q: Roger, do you anticipate that you will run five cars at the Indy 500 next year with Juan coming back on board, as well, or is that something that you're going to discuss?
ROGER PENSKE: Yeah, we are only going to run four cars next year, which would be the three regulars, then we'd add Helio as a fourth car. Last year, of course, with four drivers and the deal I made with Juan was to run him in 2017.
Q: Right, so you're just doing the four cars next season?
ROGER PENSKE: Correct.
Q: The fact that you're only doing two races next season in IndyCar, do you think you'll have a better chance to win them as you're only doing the two races, you don't have other races to contend with in the IndyCar Series?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Oh, I feel that going to Indy with Team Penske, I have a better chance out there than anyone to accomplish that goal. I know the team, how they know me, we know what we need to be doing, and that's why I'm excited about this ‑‑ the whole scenario, because I'm still going to be racing and competing even in the different series, but man, we're going to be back in Indianapolis again, and that's going to be ‑‑ it's going to be hopefully a great opportunity to bring the No. 4 that we're been looking for for a long time.
ROGER PENSKE: You should think about the Indy as a separate race. You could see Alonso coming this year with a great team like Andretti, what he was able to accomplish. So I think with Helio's past experience and with the same team members and engineer, we think this is going to put him in an equal footing with the other three drivers on our team.
Q: Helio, what do you see as your greatest challenges in transitioning from IndyCar to sports cars, and talk about running road courses only?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I see there is a lot more technology involved in certain areas that I wasn't expecting. Obviously different tracks that ‑‑ even that I drove with IndyCar, some of them I haven't been before. I feel that with the traffic, I guess, that's something that you've got to learn quick, timing, and also compromising because since we're going to be sharing a seat with another driver, so sometimes you don't want to make the car perfect for you, so you've got to be a little more open‑minded, which is always been. That's why we've been working so well together as teammates with my other teammates.
There was several things, but the good news is it's the same team, it's the same people. It's people that I worked with before in IndyCar before, so when you have that kind of thing, it makes the transition and the learning curve much faster.
Q: Roger, what kind of staffing do you have to add in order to field two sports cars for the upcoming season?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, the good news is there's quite a bit to be able to transition, the full team that ‑‑ as we looked really across the whole Indy team, and we picked a group of individuals that would have been capable of running a fourth car, and they transitioned over. Then we had some other people within our organization that we activated, had been on the sports car program before, and then we've reached out and we've added, over the last probably 60 or 90 days, people who had shown interest and put their hands up when they heard we were going into the sports car world, and I think we've added some very good people.
Plus we had individuals that worked on Juan's car at Indianapolis, so some engineering people, and to me that's going to help us build, I think, a good organization.
But I guess overall you'd probably have to say there are maybe 10 or 15 people that we'll add before the season starts.
Q: Heading into Petit Le Mans this year, you guys have a shot at getting an overall win as a team, whereas in 2008 when Helio won it with Ryan Briscoe, it was only an LMP2 entry. Talk about being able to kick off this new partnership with a potential overall win at the Petit Le Mans?
ROGER PENSKE: I think the key thing is here, this is one of the commitments that Tim and I made to each other, that we didn't want to go back to IMSA series without having a chance to run for the top prize. We've been really impressed with the teams that have run there, certainly the Cadillacs and now some of the foreign vehicles that have come in have made the series very strong, and the fact that Acura wanted to join the series, and with their background in the series, we felt we had a formidable partner. We talked to other manufacturers, but this seemed to be the right place for us.
It puts us in the right place, and then when you have the driver talent that we have within the organization and the ability to go out and get people like Dane Cameron, and when you put those into the mix, it really gives us the drivers, the technical capability, and now obviously we have to understand the balance of performance, and there's some really good teams out there that are going to be very interested to be sure we don't have much success. So that kind of motivates me to go out and say, how can we get our team to the front. It's going to take time. We are going to learn a lot, I think, this weekend at Petit Le Mans, just how to race. You've got other classes out there which are running at different speeds, and I think that's one of the things our drivers are going to have to learn because I can see that becomes a real issue as you compete in these longer races with 30 or 40 cars on the track.
Q: What's your overall take on the health of IMSA as we're seeing in multiple ‑‑ in all three of the series classes, we're seeing an overall increase in participation?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, I think sports cars, because of the interest and all these super cars that people are buying across the country, we see that in our automotive business, and the interest by the manufacturers, I think all three series have been very strong, and there's no question you're going to see 10 prototypes this weekend, I think they've done a great job, and Scott Atherton, obviously I've known him for a long time, but he worked for us running the California Speedway, and I think his background and his ability to manage this business along with Jim France and the team is terrific.
I would say that I see both IndyCar and also see certainly the sports car area having a lot of interest, a lot of young people. You can see the demographics when you go to the races, which are important. And on top of that, for me, one thing that maybe you don't know, we have seven Acura dealerships across the U.S., so to represent a brand on Sunday, then go sell on Monday obviously helps my situation from an auto dealer.
Q: Helio, do you feel a bit more confident coming back to a track where you've won and raced at before as your first race back in IMSA?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, it's been quite a long time, almost 10 years basically, the last time I was here, and certainly I was able ‑‑ I'm glad I was able to practice earlier. But again, last time I was here was so long ago, so different, and hopefully we can defend and repeat exactly what we did 10 years ago. But right now obviously I'm excited. I'm pumped and I'm ready, and will be good to have myself, Juan Pablo and Simon trying out the first time here and I can't wait to be in the race car.
Q: Roger, I just wanted to follow up on something that you said about running four cars for the Indy 500. Can Juan Pablo drive for another team? Is he able to look for a ride for the Indy 500?
ROGER PENSKE: Look, that's his decision. If he wants to run for another team, that would be his decision.
Q: But there's nothing that would keep him from doing it?
ROGER PENSKE: As I said, it's his decision, so obviously there's ‑‑ there would be nothing that we would say not to. It would be his decision completely.
Q: I just wanted to know, you said you're switching to three cars for the IndyCar program; obviously this syncs up well with Helio moving to sports cars, but why was this the right time to move down to three?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, I think we've got to look at sponsorship and the ability to fund the teams properly, and I think in the past we've run two, we went to three, we went to four, and we would have not taken on this program because the amount of people, and I say experienced people, that you need to run a competitive program, and this is part of the plan. So we really started looking at this maybe two or three years ago and really manifested itself with the contract with Acura.
To me, it makes sense to run three, the biggest race in the world obviously we'll have four real winners, people who have won the race, certainly with Helio, and I think the decision is pretty clear there, and that's the plan, and we would not have run a fourth car ‑‑ we would have if we had not had the sports car program.
Q: Helio is a Penske man, obviously like Rick Mears and some others before him, but for you, Roger, what made Helio the kind of guy, the kind of driver that you wanted to stick with for 18 years and beyond now?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, he was the ultimate team player. You've never seen him without a smile, and he's gone through some tough times in his career. We've stood beside him, and he's obviously stood beside us when we didn't deliver a car or a team effort that was required to win. It's a relationship ‑‑ he became part of the Team Penske family, as many of our drivers have, and I think that he's created an atmosphere within the team. When you've got three or four guys together, there's always maybe ‑‑ we need someone in there with some common sense and to cool everybody down, and I think Helio has been that resource for me for many years.
But more important, he's been a winner. I remember saying the first time really many years ago when he drove for Hogan, and then obviously with Greg Moore's passing away and Helio was available, I never realized that this many years he would be the guy sitting next to me in this opportunity today that we announced.
But I think his career, Gil de Ferran, the people that he's been associated with have helped me on a going‑forward basis has been key, and probably the most important thing is what he does off the track with our sponsors and commercially with our business partners has been amazing, and the fact that we could partner in an automobile dealership I think shows you how important he is to the team.
Q: Helio, you're leaving the series as probably the most popular driver maybe in its history; can you talk about the work you've done to help raise the profile of the series, maybe the impact you've had over your career in IndyCar?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, I guess it's a combination with a lot of things for sure. I have to thank obviously IndyCar Series, as well, to be able to come on board with the things that we were able to do it together. This effort is not only by a team or by a person, it's about everybody in conjunction.
But I have to say that, you know, for me, I'm sure the new era, you just had Josef Newgarden, a young American winning the championship. He's probably going to be ‑‑ if not already a star, and people are going to come up. It's just the natural way that things happen. I was just fortunate to be in some place at the right time, but certainly I enjoyed the time. I took advantage of every moment and opportunity that I had during the series in any aspect, and I thank them for them to come on board, as well.
Hopefully now we'll go to the next chapter of my life, which I'm really excited because it's something completely ‑‑ it's the same racing but a little bit different, and I'm definitely enjoying the challenge, and this is going to be a good one.
Q: Helio, when you first came to what was then the Indy Racing League, I believe the first race that year was at Homestead, and it didn't take long for you to already kind of get in a little bit of a rivalry with Sam Hornish, Jr., who at that time was at Panther Racing. You immediately hit the ground running. In a lot of ways, does that kind of sum up your competitive, aggressive style and how we might see you do this when you jump into a sports car?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, it certainly was back then, coming from Champ Car and going to IndyCar, IRL, it was a different style. Yes, it was only ovals. Actually that first race, I tried to be the most aggressive, but he was ‑‑ with the different style racing he decided to go more downforce, and he actually ended up almost lapping everyone. We noticed that ‑‑ we learned that it's not only you've got to be consistent, but you've got to make sure the tires last. So we learned.
And probably that's what's going to happen the same way. Maybe I go in some route different but with a little bit more experience now, maybe I will catch on a little bit faster. But in the same day, in the same way, everyone is going to be learning, myself, my team, but I feel like in this type of racing it's constantly changing because it's so many cars that you've got to just take the opportunity when it appears but not take unnecessary risk because it's not like a sprint race, it's a long‑distance race.
But for sure back then I was ‑‑ it was interesting to understand how it works, but we learned it, and we'll continue doing the same.
Q: What is your favorite IndyCar Series memory not related to the Indy 500?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, I guess my first win in Detroit, Belle Isle, it was my first. I remember right there, Juan Pablo actually was in front of me and he had a mechanical issue, and finally I was in a position to win the race. TC on the radio coaching me to come around the track, and as soon as I crossed the finish line TC was kind of like, now they're going to know who you are, which was really cool, and those memories, those words I will never forget, and also it was where the climbing the fence start. It was completely something that I did not plan.
But for sure the first win you never forget.
Q: I was wondering with the new aero kits coming in next season, will the No. 3 crew from IndyCar, will they be distributed amongst the other crews so that when Helio comes back for the Indy 500, he'll be well‑prepared for the new aero kits?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, I think the key leader for Helio at Indy will be Jonathan Diuguid, who is his race engineer and been with him for a number of years, and he's one of our key people on the IMSA side, and what we'll do is we'll take the people because there's not many conflicts there, we'll pull the people who would fill that team, and I would assume that most of them would be similar to this past year. But again, we've got quite a good group there because they've been able to field a number of cars. So I think we're going to be in great shape.
Q: I know there was some uncertainty about the confirmation of this decision, but I was wondering if there was any consideration ever given at any point to kind of doing a farewell during for Helio for fans to get a chance to say goodbye at different tracks, kind of what we saw with some of the NASCAR icons recently?
ROGER PENSKE: Well, I think we looked at that. We will have a celebration for Helio at the Indianapolis 500, where he has most of his fans, and I think that he's going to be around and people will see him, and I guess it's so hard to try to create the right environment when you don't have the final decisions, and I think to say that he was not going to run in 2018 at the beginning of the year wouldn't have been right because we didn't have an answer. So a little bit of that has to do with timing. Obviously Helio is not getting out of the sport, not stopping driving maybe like Earnhardt and some of these other people have, Jeff Gordon. But I think at this point, he's going to be around, he's going to be part of the Indy circuit at the biggest race in the world, and he's also going to create a new fan base on the sports car side.
I think that if you step back and look at the trajectory that he has from a business standpoint, from a career standpoint, from a racing standpoint, I think that we've placed him in a very good position, and I feel that I've certainly given him the chances that he needed. He's produced the results and continues to, and that's why we're looking at this as a future opportunity for both of us.
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