Helio Castroneves

Business Jet Traveler » February 2011
“I have flown in the Legacy, And wow, Embraer is doing an incredible job. I’m
Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 4:00am

The deep growl of an Audi R8 sidling into the parking lot beside a runway accompanied Helio Castroneves's arrival for our interview at South Florida's Palm Beach County Airport. Turns out the Audi is just one of a stable of hot cars that the three-time Indy 500-winning racecar driver has free access to, thanks to his relationship with car-share club Miami Drive. Castroneves appears not to take the perk for granted-and to realize just how improbable it was for a kid from Ribeiroa Preto, Brazil, to make it as a star of the racing world, living a dream existence against the backdrop of Miami's coconut-palm-studded boulevards, exotic cars and private jets.

His early career as an Indy driver with the now-defunct Tasman Racing team ended before it ever really got started when sponsorship money dried up after the 1998 season. Castroneves, just 23 at the time, was close to boarding an airplane to fly home to Brazil when the death of a promising young driver named Greg Moore in a crash at the Marlboro 500 in Fontana, Calif., thrust the Brazilian into the spotlight.

Moore had just signed a deal with Penske Racing for the 2000 IndyCar season, but his death in 1999 left the team scrambling to find a replacement. After a hastily arranged meeting between team owner Roger Penske and Castroneves, the name on Moore's original contract was crossed out in pen and the new driver's name written in above it. (This seemingly small detail would play a role in a tax-evasion case leveled against Castroneves years later by the IRS.)

Suddenly, the young driver found himself at the wheel of the No. 3 Team Penske car, racing in a resurgent IndyCar series that has made stars of drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick. And among them, Castroneves became one of the brightest of all, winning the Indy 500 in 2001 in his first full season with the team. He followed that accomplishment with a second win at Indy in 2002, becoming the first driver to win the race back to back since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971.

Then in 2007 Castroneves competed on the ABC reality series Dancing with the Stars. He won the competition, along with the hearts of millions of viewers, who were drawn by the racecar driver's charisma as much as by his dance moves. Suddenly, Castroneves was better known in America than he'd ever imagined possible. Then came the tax-evasion charges, brought by the IRS in 2008 for sins he'd allegedly committed since signing with Penske Racing. If convicted, he faced the possibility of a six-year prison sentence, deportation and the end of his racing career.

Castroneves's original contract with Penske Racing became a key part to his legal defense, in which the driver's lawyers argued that he hadn't really had a firm grasp of what he was signing when he'd joined the team and had been concerned more with pursuing his life's passion of competing on the race track than with financial details. 

A month after his acquittal on all counts in the tax case in April 2009, Castroneves again won the Indy 500, becoming one of only a handful of drivers to do so three or more times. Unlike his first two wins at Indy, which were followed by jubilant celebration, this victory found him bowing his head and sobbing. "I think my tears speak for everything," he said at the time. 

Now a father of a one-year-old girl, Castroneves is more introspective than ever before. As he notes in Victory Road, his new autobiography, his most thrilling wins and difficult defeats are all simply part of the story of his life. 

Speaking with him, you get the feeling he wouldn't change a minute of it. 

What do you recall about your first flight on a business jet?

It was with Roger Penske in his Learjet 55 back in 2000. I was very surprised by the interior. It reminded me of a luxury car. I was very careful just to stay in my seat and not touch anything. I was kind of intimidated, to be honest. Now I'm used to it, and I'm always joking that we need to upgrade to a bigger plane.

How much flying will you do for the upcoming season?

I'm getting on a Gulfstream this afternoon to fly to Indianapolis for a team event. With my team, Penske Racing, every year we go to Japan in Roger's G450, which is the best. We have 17 races this season, and I'll probably fly privately to five or six of them. When we're going to places like Watkins Glen or Birmingham or Richmond that involve layovers, those places are easier to reach flying privately. A lot of the time I'll share a plane with other racecar drivers because we all live in the same area and we're all going to the same place, so it makes it very easy and helps to cut costs to fly together.


How does the experience of flying the airlines compare with flying privately?

My goodness, there is no comparison. Unfortunately, these days with the security it's so inconvenient [to use airlines]. You save so much time flying privately. For me the biggest considerations are time and comfort. It doesn't really make sense for me to own an airplane with the amount of flying I do, so I'm looking for a company that would be able to provide a sort of timeshare for the drivers. 


Is it ever strange sharing an airplane with drivers you will be competing against?

Sometimes. For the most part we try to stay away from each other on the airplane, keep our distance. The big thing is, you want to make sure with a race in which you'll be flying home with other drivers that you don't crash into them. It's happened before, and it can make for a little bit of a tense situation. But there's nothing you can do. You've got to fly home. The one guy sits in his seat, you sit in yours. You both put on your iPods and don't talk. 


Who pays for those charter flights? Does the team pick up the tab?

Each driver has his own agreement with his team, and it's generally pretty similar from one to the next. For travel to races, for testing, appearances and commitments, the team pays for it by providing an allowance. It's up to you to decide how you want to travel, whether you want to fly first class, private, coach or whatever. By sharing a private jet with other drivers, we can each pay about what a first-class ticket costs but we gain all the advantages of flying privately. We can leave when we want to, arrive when we want to, avoid all the hassles at the airport for check-in and security and so on. 

Each driver has his own agreement with his team, and it's generally pretty similar from one to the next. For travel to races, for testing, appearances and commitments, the team pays for it by providing an allowance. It's up to you to decide how you want to travel, whether you want to fly first class, private, coach or whatever. By sharing a private jet with other drivers, we can each pay about what a first-class ticket costs but we gain all the advantages of flying privately. We can leave when we want to, arrive when we want to, avoid all the hassles at the airport for check-in and security and so on. 

Many of the IndyCar drivers live in South Florida so it makes sense for us to meet at the airport, leave our cars there or even car pool. Bombardier was sponsoring a couple of the races-one in Texas and the Indy 500-and we tried to get an agreement with them to take 10 of us to races in a bigger plane, but obviously they are in the business of selling airplanes, not chartering them, and that made it hard for us to get an agreement. 

Have you ever considered buying an airplane?

I have looked at the Pilatus PC-12 and Piaggio Avanti, and to be honest I would love to own either of those. They are just fantastic. But I had to look at it from the standpoint of how many hours I fly in a year. For it to make sense to own an airplane you would have to be a nascar driver, because you'd travel every weekend. For those guys a plane like the Embraer Phenom 100 is perfect. It has the perfect range and a low price. But for me the big expense wouldn't be buying a plane, it would be operating it. If you don't fly it enough it doesn't make sense.

Have you flown in the Phenom 100 or 300?

I have not yet. I have flown in the Legacy, and wow, Embraer is doing an incredible job. I'm from Brazil so that makes me proud to know that Brazilians are competing in this market. Especially now that the Brazilian economy is actually quite strong. I have friends who are aircraft brokers and they're selling a lot of airplanes in Brazil right now. 


Have you looked into fractional ownership? 

I have. The only downsides are where I live-in Fort Lauderdale-and when I do most of my traveling. It's an hour and a half farther to reach South Florida and in the summer it seems to be very difficult to get an airplane here. The busy time obviously is the winter, but I need to do most of my trips in the summer, during the racing season. But I can find great deals in the summer with charter providers based here.


Do you go back to visit Brazil often?

This year it's been a little bit more because we now have a race in Brazil. That's leading to some opportunities with sponsors in Brazil, so yes, I'm doing more travel to Brazil now. 


What was it like to race in front of your countrymen last season?

It was great. The crowd was incredible. And I think this upcoming year will be even better. Brazilians love racing. They love cars. You just have to go there to be successful. The last time we had a race in Brazil before this past season was 2001. Now they've signed for five more years so the excitement for Indy racing in Brazil will only grow stronger. 


How did you get started in racing?

My dad owned a small stock-car race team in Brazil. I came on board watching that-and I fell in love with it. But I didn't want to be a team owner. I wanted to be the driver. One of the drivers gave me a go-kart when I was little and it was just the best. In 1987 I competed in the national championship series in São Paulo. I didn't start very well, but I loved it. All of us kids would race against each other in the mornings and then at lunchtime we would play soccer. It was just a great time. Then I won my first race and got my first trophy and from then on the bug had bitten me. I couldn't get rid of it. 


How did you get involved in IndyCar with Roger Penske?

I was racing British Formula Three and my Latin America sponsor said they wanted to move me up, but not in Europe. They wanted to sponsor me in America. I was like, America? OK, here we go! 

In the beginning I had a lot of crashes. I moved up to Indy racing in 1998, but it was with very small teams. I finished second a few times, showing potential, but the equipment we had wasn't the best. Unfortunately, a very good racecar driver, Greg Moore, had a fatal crash in 1999. He'd signed with Roger Penske for the 2000 season. At that time, I was heading back to Brazil. Roger Penske and I ended up talking and I ended up signing with the team. And I would say it was destiny. It wasn't Roger's decision, it wasn't my decision-it was the guy upstairs who decided. 

When I first started racing for Roger I felt kind of uncomfortable because it's tough to be in this situation. Until Greg's mom came to me and said, "Listen, no worries. I heard you in interviews saying you're not here to replace anybody, but don't worry, I'm sure that's the way it should be." And that for me was so important, to have that blessing from her. 

With Roger we ended up winning three Indy 500s. We still haven't won a championship, but I want to at least hopefully tie the record for most wins at Indy with the biggest name, Rick Mears [Indy 500 winner in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991.] We're almost there. 


How long do you think you'll continue racing?

I haven't been thinking about that, but I can't wait for the 2011 season. These types of feelings keep adding fuel to the fire, so I guess realistically I would say four or five years more, but the way I see it, as long as I'm competitive I'll keep going.

After your time on Dancing with the Stars you've stayed in the spotlight, and in America you've basically become a household name, and really it's not even because of racing.

That's true. Winning the Indy 500 was a big deal, but being on Dancing with the Stars, I had no idea, having 20 million people watching you every week, how well known you become. And right after that was when I was charged with tax evasion in Miami. So basically I went from winning the Indy 500 to Dancing with the Stars and then to tax evasion, and I was like, OK, that's it, my career's over. Then I finished everything with that [tax case], I go to Indy and win again, and it was like, OK, here we go! 

What prompted you to write a book?

I wanted to tell my story and emphasize for people that we might have different problems, but we all face problems, and here's how I was able to keep myself positive, how I was able to cope. 

There was a time when I didn't know what was going to happen with my career, and my biggest fear was taking the racing away. I love what I do, and that would be like taking air from me.

I also talk about my faith, the fight for justice, family and all the little things in life that are important. The book is not about racing. It's about the ups and downs we all face. It's about giving people inspiration, especially teenagers who sometimes don't know which direction to go. Follow your heart is what I tell them. If you have a dream, you've got to pursue it. 

I say a lot in the book that God has a plan. And I'll tell you, for me, I love the plan. 

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