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Ryan: All hail Helio Castroneves, trophy hunter extraordinaire in motorsports

Helio Castroneves thanks his teammates after he never thought he'd be climbing the Daytona fence, as he follows up his Indy 500 win with a 2nd-straight win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, this time with Meyer Shank Racing.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – So what highly coveted auto racing trophy is ahead for Helio Castroneves, the reigning big game hunter of motorsports who keeps ticking off the world’s greatest races?

The past 364 days now have included the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Indy 500 and the Rolex 24 at Daytona -- again (on Sunday with another extraordinary finishing kick that was nearly the equal of his calculated closing flourish at Indy last year).

And the next marquee target?

The natural answer – and one Castroneves mentioned multiple times postrace Sunday at Daytona – is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he already seems ticketed for an inaugural appearance in his late 40s (and a shot to join 2019 Rolex 24 winner and two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso in winning two of the world’s biggest endurance races).

But let’s get creative!

A Helio v. Max duel at Monaco seems enticing. The dunes of Dakar could use a little of his “Brazilian magic” (as teammate Simon Pagenaud calls it). Maybe John Force needs to face off at the U.S. Nationals with the only driver who could match his boundless verve.

Or wait … what about Daytona International Speedway again -- but the 2.5-mile oval instead of the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course?

The World Center of Racing does have that little 500-mile stock-car race coming up next month. Four Borgs-Warners, two engraved Rolexes … a Harley J. Earl trophy would be the perfect way to complete a triple crown of American racing treasures.

Unsurprisingly, the thought of parachuting into the Daytona 500 already has occurred to Castroneves, whose eyes lit up at the semi-serious suggestion of making his NASCAR Cup Series debut along with the Next Gen car in the Great American Race.

“I would love to,” said Castroneves, who revealed he already had laid the groundwork last summer while racing the Superstar Racing Experience run by two NASCAR Hall of Famers (and which apparently will welcome him back this year). “I spoke with (Ray) Evernham and Tony Stewart, said, ‘Hey, find me a car and I’ll jump in! I’m sure a lot of people would like to see me.’ Who knows what’s going to happen? And they talked about it but nothing. Didn’t get traction.

“But I love to race. This is me. It’s been my entire life. And I admire respect. I know it’s not easy. I understand everyone has your specialty. And that’s why, when I moved to IMSA, I believed I started getting better because you start exploring more of your racecraft. And today the big win was because of that. I knew my competitors. I knew what I needed to do, and I did.”

Sunday at Daytona – where Castroneves was chosen as the closer over his three ace sports car teammates for the final hour in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Acura -- was further confirmation that the superstar who made his nut in IndyCar has a skillset that somehow keeps getting bigger with age.

“And he’s also only getting better,” Pagenaud said.

Castroneves will turn 47 on May 10, and three weeks later, he will make his 23rd start at the Brickyard as perhaps the prohibitive favorite to win a record fifth Indy 500.

By this time next year, he could be getting ready for a maiden voyage to Le Mans, which will be open to IMSA’s top division (with the new LMDh cars) for the first time in more than 30 years.

During Sunday’s winner’s news conference, Castroneves and Pagenaud openly were lobbying team co-owner Mike Shank (whose team fielded an LMP2 at Le Mans in 2016).

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

Winners #60: Meyer Shank Racing W/Curb-Agajanian, Acura DPi, DPi: Oliver Jarvis, Tom Blomqvist, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, podium

LAT Images

“Mike, let’s go to Le Mans,” Castroneves said, interrupting a moderator listing his recent accomplishments at Indy and Daytona. “Let’s go!”

“I speak French,” Pagenaud deadpanned, later offering that he has a house not far from the most famous endurance race in the world. “I can show you places.”

His effervescent Brazilian teammate won’t pass on the opportunity to put on a show in France, noting a previous Le Mans ride fell through because of a scheduling conflict three years ago. Shank said a decision on returning to France as early as 2023 lies with Honda but “when they’re ready to go, we’re going.”

“I would love to try obviously,” Castroneves said. “Gotta go to those big events.

“We were just talking about age is (not) a problem. I think I’m not running out of time. I’m just getting more experience. And experience in this type of race is the key to be successful.”

There also is a simple secret to the success of a former “Dancing With The Stars” winner who celebrates every victory by scurrying up whatever chain-link catch fence he can find (with his team members in tow like Sunday in an emotional scene eerily similar to IMS last year).

“Passion,” he said. “Passion. When you love what you do and you enjoy it and you have fun and you are surrounded by great people, it makes it happen. That’s the secret.”

His infectious personality also builds trust with co-drivers Pagenaud, Oliver Jarvis and Tom Blomqvist, who happily celebrated at the finish line after joining the fence climb. Castroneves interrupted his postrace run of show multiple times to call his teammates over to share in the joy.

“Woo, woo,” Castroneves exclaimed as they posed for a team photo on the banking. “P1! P1! We’re the king of the world!”

He drove flawlessly over the final hour after being handed the keys on Lap 728, navigating traffic under intense pressure from former teammate Ricky Taylor. Victory wasn’t assured until the final lap when Castroneves narrowly missed a dustup between two GTD Pro cars sliding through the Le Mans Chicane while battling for the class lead.

“I felt a lot of things, like changing my underwear was one of them,” Castroneves said. “Code Brown was another one. I was like all over the place. And thank God that car just kept skidding and did not stop right away. I did not expect a big crash like that right in front. So thank God, it was a little bit of anticipation and luck at the same time. And thank God I had a little bit of a gap between me and Ricky so that I could plan that.

“But it was very scary. I don’t think any other moment of the race (was) that kind of scary.”

It affirmed the decision by Blomqvist, who gave over the wheel despite the team offering the option to stay in until the checkered flag.

“Obviously it would have been fantastic to finish the race, but I’ve been in the car quite a while, and I was pretty cooked at that point,” Blomqvist, 28, said. “But Helio had been super strong all race. So it wasn’t like we were going to give anything away there. Helio did a fantastic job. And it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

“And I think ultimately it teed up Helio only had one job, and it was to not to mess it up. So, I mean, he did a great job. He’s 60 years old and he’s super fast.”

Kidding aside, the blinding speed is matched by a dogged persistence that’s been the bedrock of his late-career renaissance.

When he lost his full-time IndyCar ride with Team Penske in 2017, Castroneves kept a positive attitude while sliding over to Penske’s new Acura team for the next three seasons in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship (while continuing to run the Indy 500 as a one-off).

When Penske shuttered its program after he and Ricky Taylor won the IMSA DPi championship in 2020, Castroneves happily proclaimed he was “open for business.”

Facing what many would have perceived as the end of the line after more than 20 years with car owner Roger Penske, he treated it as a second chance to market his talents with the enthusiasm of a hot young 20something.

Castroneves found the perfect fit with team co-owners Jim Meyer and Michael Shank in a part-time NTT IndyCar Series schedule (which will expand full time this year as Pagenaud’s teammate).

Rolex 24 at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JANUARY 30: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #60 Meyer Shank Racing w/ Curb-Agajanian Acura DPi, celebrates with his team after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 30, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Getty Images

“He’s got everything covered in every spectrum of driving, from the business side to the driving side, to the saving fuel, to the performance,” Shank said. “And a lot of people talk about his age. But I kind of see through that.”

It’s easier when Castroneves constantly is begging to drive as much as possible. Next month, he plans to race in Texas and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring for Meyer Shank Racing, making a Texas to Florida commute on consecutive days that many IndyCar drivers are skipping.

“Helio just makes me smile,” Shank said. “This guy wins the Indy 500 for us. He gets in the (Acura), and he’s like ‘Put me in! Put me in! I’m ready!’ It’s just an amazing story, and we love him.”

Castroneves likes comparing his career arc with Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady.

“It was a rumor he was going to retire,” Castroneves said, referencing the recent reports about Brady’s future with one of many laughs in his postrace interview. “No, he can’t retire! No, he’s my mojo!”

But even if Brady is gone from the NFL gridiron for good, auto racing seems to have its own active legend who might be competitive well into his 50s.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

Winners #60: Meyer Shank Racing W/Curb-Agajanian, Acura DPi, DPi: Oliver Jarvis, Tom Blomqvist, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, podium

LAT Images

“When you have passion, when you study, you have a team behind you to support and teammates, racing is a very competitive sport,” Castroneves said. “You’ve just got to keep doing your homework. I’ve been disciplined, and the results will show up. No question.”

How much racing does he have left?

“A lot,” he said. “The fire’s still burning. One of the quotes that Rick Mears told me a long time ago: If you don’t have the fire, if you stop thinking about it, then it’s time for you to stop.

“I can’t live without it right now. I love this environment. It’s my confidence zone, my therapy, everything. It’s where I feel most comfortable.

“Right now, whatever is next, I’m going to keep it going.”