Helio Castroneves: The fire still burns

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We’re blasting down the 2100-foot straightaway in a race-prepared BMW M2 at the Concours Club’s new track in Miami, Florida. The driver comes to a right-hand kink. Hands light on the steering wheel, he flicks the car through the kink without lifting, then brakes hard for a hairpin. Correcting a slight skid, the driver’s car control seems almost telepathic.

Normally I’d be nervous, but I glance over and notice the driver’s Indianapolis 500 winner’s ring—he has four, and no one has more—and his Rolex watch. He has three of those now, as of last weekend, when he became the first driver to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race three consecutive years.

IMSA Rolex 24 Daytona Castroneves
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Helio Castroneves is smiling, which is not unusual. He’s 5-foot-8, ropy, not particularly muscular. His workouts target endurance more than sheer muscle mass. In television interviews he comes across as a very nice guy, animated but genuine. What you saw when he competed in, and won, Dancing with the Stars in 2007 is what you get in person.

It is, in fact, difficult to cheer against the driver known as “Spiderman,” a nicknamed earned from his penchant for climbing the catch fences at tracks after a victory. He did it again, at age 47, on January 29 at Daytona International Speedway.

“It’s a very tough sport. You lose more than you win,” Castroneves said. “It did touch me. That’s why I love this sport. It is very hard and when you get to win, you celebrate.”

IMSA Rolex 24 Daytona 2023 night
Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Castroneves won his third Rolex 24 in the Meyer Shank Racing Acura, co-driving with Tom Blomvquist, Colin Braun, and his Meyer Shank IndyCar teammate, Simon Pagenaud. The car qualified on the pole and led repeatedly to the win, finishing 4.2 seconds ahead of the other Acura, fielded by Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport.

“This team is amazing. This is absolutely a dream come true,’’ Castroneves said after the race. “So happy to start the year like this.”

Castroneves gets back behind the wheel at the March 5 IndyCar season opener, where he’ll drive a Meyer-Shank Honda in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a race he’s won three times. After that, he’ll run the full IndyCar season, and as the only active driver to have four wins at the Indianapolis 500 (the others are A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and the late Al Unser, Sr.), Castroneves would love to make it a record-setting five. Though he has never raced in NASCAR, he had been hoping to find a ride for the Daytona 500 on February 19, but he ran out of time. He said he may well go as a spectator and shoot for 2024 to drive in the Great American Race. He will also compete in the summer made-for-TV SRX series, which he has also won in. “I’ll race most anything,” he said.

Helio Castroneves of Brazil driving a Honda for Meyer Shank Racing
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As we pull into the pits, Castroneves parks the BMW and a hostess greets us with a cold towel and a bottle of water. That isn’t because I’m with Castroneves, it’s just part of the service.

About that Concours Club service: The venue had a quiet opening in July of 2021, and it continues to grow on its 75 acres located on the edge of the grounds of the Miami Opa-Locka Executive Airport, a short distance from downtown Miami. The airport is home to plenty of celebrity-owned airplanes, including Jennifer Lopez’s private jet, but the real advantage of the location is that the Concours Club has no noise, lighting, or late-night restrictions.

It was founded by attorney Neil Gehani, CEO of Trilogy Real Estate Group in Chicago and a part-time Miami resident, and managed by Aaron Weiss, the club president. The membership list—and no, you can’t look at it—is a who’s who of South Florida car-enthusiast millionaires-and-beyond. Some decline to be identified even within the club. On the list of the five fastest laps turned by members, numbers three through five are listed as “Anonymous.”

Certainly one of the only race tracks that employs a Master Sommelier and a members-and-guests-only gourmet restaurant on site, presided over by Brad Kilgore, described by the Miami Herald as “one of Miami’s most celebrated chefs,” the Concours Club prefers to take on new members who have been recommended by current members.

Naturally, membership comes at a steep cost. The initial fee is $375,000, with annual dues of $35,000. “That is as of today,” said Susana Olmos, the club’s director of marketing. It did not sound like the price is expected to go down anytime soon.

That’s for a basic membership, and while that covers a lot, if you want one of the 41 Auto Lofts—your collector and race cars on the bottom, a luxury condo upstairs—you’ll need to ante up a lot more if there is still one available: “By the time you publish this, they should all be sold,” Weiss said. Less expensive car storage is offered, with round-the-clock security and state-of-the-art fire suppression systems. Plenty of members have car collections, which many prefer to keep at the track. Walking through the club garages is like going to a high-end car show.

While most every aspect of the Concours Club is state-of-the-art, the term certainly applies to the track itself, a smooth, tight, technical circuit that can be run in seven different lengths and configurations. Most impressive is the operation of the track and the instruction offered by multiple on-staff pro drivers, including veteran Oswaldo Negri—a Brazilian (like Castroneves) who won the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona and raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

There is no flagman. Literally dozens of cameras line the track, making remote operation possible, as does “semi-autonomous predictive electronic flagging software.” Instruction is also remote; Weiss personally knew race drivers who died in crashes with students while instructing from the right seat, so all instruction is done from a constantly-monitored control center via video monitors and radios in the cars. Instructors get real-time data, so they can tell students that they did better on a turn this lap than they did on the last one.

“It’s every bit as constructive as coaches riding in the car with members, maybe more so,” Weiss said. Also, some of the members’ rides either have no right seat, or the space inside is so tight that fitting two adults would be a challenge.

Back in the main clubhouse—the style is not remotely ostentatious—we sip a sommelier-selected glass of wine and talk about racing and life and the Concours Club. “I’ve never seen anything like this place,” said Castroneves, who is club member number 4. He brought a friend from his sponsor’s company, AutoNation, to the club, “and this is a guy who loves to critique things. He found nothing to critique here.”

Castroneves was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1975, and was just five when he discovered auto racing, an interest he inherited from his father, Helio Castro Neves, Sr. (the younger Helio changed his surname to Castroneves in 2000 because the media was confused by the two last names, he said). His car-dealer father earned enough money to buy a small stock car team in Brazil, and often smuggled his son into races in the trunk of his car wearing a custom-made fire suit and matching helmet.

At age 10, Castroneves began racing karts, and progressed up the ladder as far as his father’s money could take him. The senior Castro Neves sold practically everything he had to help fund his son’s racing. Eventually sponsors entered the picture, and Castroneves raced in Europe before coming to America to race Indy Lights and then IndyCars.

Rolex 24 at Daytona Helio Castroneves
James Gilbert/Getty Images

The rest is, as they say, history. Castroneves signed with team owner Roger Penske in 2000 and that partnership lasted for 20 years. Now Castroneves is signed to Meyer Shank Racing, a much smaller team than Penske’s but one that can obviously get the job done. It doesn’t hurt that Castroneves is a master at communicating what he needs in a car to the engineers and crew.

“I might be the one in front of the cameras, but racing is teamwork. It’s the team that gets you that opportunity. You can’t win a race without great pit stops, and great preparation—again, everything starts at the shop. Those guys make it happen. Going 235 mph in an IndyCar, I have to be able to trust that every screw has been tightened.”

Castroneves may be the same age as NFL quarterback Tom Brady, but unlike Brady, Castroneves isn’t ready to hang up his helmet.

How much longer, Helio? “I don’t know. As long as I have the fire. I don’t want to stop, take a year sabbatical, then come back. That’s not for me. That’s wrong. Once I’m out, I’m out.”

But not now, he said. “The fire, it still burns.”

IMSA Rolex 24 Daytona 2023
Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

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    My favorite Indy driver was Emmo, and Spiderman runs a close second. Don’t know why I picked two Brazilians, but maybe it’s just because they’re both such damn fine race drivers. If I was only choosing based on personality, Helio would obviously move to the top. I always enjoy when they interview him – he’s just so full of joy to be doing what he does.
    I’m happy for him that he gets to harvest the fruits of his labors but having things like Concours Club membership. He’s definitely earned it. And he’s typically humble here, where he give the credit due to all the team members who help put/keep him in the races. But his talent is truly the cherry on top of any team effort. He’s made quite a few team-owners significantly richer and put a lot of trophies on manager’s walls over his special career. I wish him well in whatever he decides to do! 🏁🏎

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