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Helio Castroneves’ SRX dirt experience improved his driving skills

SRX Castroneves

KNOXVILLE, IOWA - JUNE 19: SRX driver Helio Castroneves leads SRX driver Scott Bloomquist and SRX driver Michael Waltrip during the Superstar Racing Experience event at Knoxville Raceway on June 19, 2021 in Knoxville, Iowa. (Photo by Dylan Buell/SRX via Getty Images)

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At 46, Castroneves is still looking to improve as a driver and his recent dirt track experience in the Camping World SRX Series at Eldora Speedway adds to that skillset. Slightly less than one month after winning his fourth Indy 500 and five months after scoring the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona win, Castroneves was just as enthusiastic about his first podium finish in three SRX races.

One reason this podium felt so good was that he came close in the two previous series races with fourth-place finishes at Stafford (Conn.) Speedway and Knoxville (Iowa) Speedway.

“If you would have told me one day I would be racing on dirt, I would have said ‘no way’,” Castroneves said during media availability prior to this week’s race at Lucas Oil Raceway this Saturday, July 3. “And all the sudden I’m racing there and got my first podium in the SRX at Eldora, which is really amazing.”

Finishing third, Castroneves not only scored his first podium, he was in the hunt for the win as multiple cautions waved in the closing laps of the race. Equally important, he solidified his second-place position in the standings halfway through the season, trailing Tony Stewart by 33 points.

To hear him talk, one would not know that this is a specialty series designed to pit older superstars against up-and-comers in identically prepared cars reminiscent of the IROC series.

Castroneves competed in IROC four seasons from 2002 through 2005 and scored three top-fives. His best points’ finish was fourth in his rookie season. So he knows something about racing in these shortened series, and he’s hungry to win. Despite a constant smile on his face that infects everyone who sees it, Castroneves takes racing in SRX seriously and is taking the time to learn how to excel.

Castroneves got a lot of help before climbing into the car to race in Heat 1 - a race he led twice and finished second - by asking questions of everyone around him.

One of the recipients of his queries was Keith Kunz, the Local All-Star Crew Chief for Eldora’s race. He is also the owner of Keith Kunz Motorsports, which fields midgets in the USAC and Powri series. And as the crew chief with the most experience on dirt for the Eldora SRX race, Castroneves could not have asked for a better coach.

“Helio got one (dirt) race under his belt before I came,” Kunz told NBC Sports. “He instantly was pretty good and he was really wanting to learn. When you have a series like the SRX, a lot of them are there to enjoy themselves and some of them are there to race hard. Helio really wanted to excel on the dirt because it was something he had never done.

“He was very enthusiastic. Asked a lot of questions. Everything we threw at him, he listened and went out and did. On practice night, he took everything we suggested and went out and kept going faster and faster, where by the end of the night he was turning the fastest laps of the day.”

Castroneves’ introduction to dirt came one week previous at Knoxville. There was a learning curve as he finished ninth and seventh of 12 drivers in his two heats, but once he got to the feature, he was comfortable.

Then it was on to Eldora, which Castroneves believed was the more challenging track of the two.

“My specialty is, my team runs a lot of dirt and I’ve raced a lot at Eldora and that is where I was really able to help Helio,” Kunz said. “Where he needed to be and how he needed to enter the corner to get speed - how where he entered the track changed the feel of the car - and he absorbed all that to his benefit.”

Castroneves has 25 IndyCar wins to his credit. He’s stood on the stop step of the podium more than a half-dozen times in sports cars, but when he gets his first SRX win one senses it will be just as meaningful because it further adds to an impressive resume and a more impressive skill set.

Becoming a better driver, even at the age of 46, is what is driving Castroneves to success.

“Following the direction of (guys like Kunz) because they’ve been there in different series, raced many times, for me just having a coach and going to a place I’ve never been and never experienced. Basically listening to everyone. The good news about our series is we all respect each other, We all help each other. You see everyone giving pointers and what to do. I was just following a lot of directions and at the end of the day you start understanding, seeing a little bit where the grip is.

“Running on dirt definitely improved my skills in racing.”