That Time I Asked Helio Castroneves About Cleveland

When I meet people at a track for the first time, they usually already know I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. That is, if they follow me on any form of social media. I’m far from shy when it comes to proclaiming my adoration of the city I call home. I sing it proudly from the rooftops. And I’ve always been that way, well before the Larry O’Brien trophy took up residence. The other thing that I love loudly and unashamedly, is IndyCar.

Once upon a time, the two loves of my life came together on a single summer weekend and all was right in the world. But, like all things, the Grand Prix of Cleveland came to an end – and that end was 2007. What’s crazy is that the GP was born in Cleveland the same year I was – 1982. You know who won that inaugural race? Bobby Rahal. Less than 4 years later, I attended my first Indy car race – the 1986 Indianapolis 500. And who won? Bobby Rahal. The Rahals are an Ohio-family as well, so I always thought that was cool.

The original date for the 500 that year was rained out, so when it was rescheduled for the following Saturday, my parents packed up the car with my brother and I, and headed to Indy. Little did they know they were introducing an experience that would become my first vivid memories.

Three years old and I remember it all. Standing in the line on the outside of the track, walking onto the track just before Turn 1 and standing next to my brother as my mom took our picture. That adrenaline rush? I could actually feel it. It was like a burst of energy, and a moment I relive every time my feet hit that hallowed ground of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2003 Cleveland Champ Car<br /> 3-5th July, 2003,<br /> Cleveland, USA<br /> Sebastien Bourdais - Newman Haas Racing<br /> ©2003, Gavin Lawrence, England<br /> LAT Photographic

Every summer from that point forward, we attended the Grand Prix of Cleveland in addition to a few more Indianapolis 500’s. We went down to Mid-Ohio a handful of times as well. The weather wasn’t always great – I distinctly remember getting my pink Osh Gosh B’gosh overalls soaked with mud one year – but not even that would deter me from hearing those cars roar around the tracks.

Then 1999 happened. I was in and out of the hospital from April to July. I had Leukemia. I ended up going through 2.5 years of chemotherapy and in that time I missed nearly all races. I went to the 2001 Indianapolis 500 and I’ve gone every year since with the exception of one. After college I came back home to Cleveland, started working and due to my schedule with those jobs I wasn’t able to attend what turned out to be the last two Indy car races for the Grand Prix of Cleveland.

Since then, I’ve hoped to hear that it would be brought back. People here talk about it all the time! When racing fans across the country talk to me they almost always bring up the GP of Cleveland… saying they miss it and “Hey, when are we coming back there?!” My response is usually something to the effect of, “Not soon enough.”

I’ve made it my own mission to bring up IndyCar in Cleveland at any opportunity that warrants. And some that don’t. If you listen to the Push to Pass podcast, you know this to be true. I am in love with my hometown, in love with IndyCar, and I see no reason that we can’t work to get them back together. Have a heart, people!

The above is also true when talking to drivers. If I recognize a relatable topic, I’m going for it. Take my conversation with Helio Castroneves (No. 3, Team Penske) over the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend, for example…

I started out by inquiring if his driving would stay similar to what we normally see from him or if it would be more aggressive this season, given the tight field and expected challenges with some top drivers moving over to Honda. He explained that he would race the same way he always races, look for consistency and wins, and of course, making sure to fight his strong teammates on track while not being reckless. I mean, you want a happy Roger at the end of the day, so that’s completely understandable!

We transitioned in to discussing his continued focus on achieving that elusive series championship,

“I’ll always be going for that Championship, that’s my goal. The things that happen outside my control, I can’t take that into consideration. Last year we were competitive and ready but we were fighting for a win.”

In the midst of his reply, his crew  and Will Power’s crew were warming the engines of the No. 3 and No. 12 and despite Helio’s whistles and jokes trying to get them to stop, they persisted on. It was pretty funny to see everyone in an extended pause during interviews, but it quieted down after a few minutes and we continued. You have to love the liveliness of the paddock!

As a reminder, Castroneves’ best finish in 2016 was P2 at both the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Honda Indy Toronto. He had just as many poles – one at the series return to Phoenix International Raceway and the other at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He finished third in points for the championship run. His last win was Race 2 on Belle Isle in Detroit, in 2014.

Another journalist asked him, “The series has started returning to iconic tracks such as Road America and Watkins Glen. Out of all tracks you’ve raced in IndyCar, CART, Champ Car – which would you like to go back to racing?”

Castroneves pondered for a moment and then shared,

“Portland is a place that I really love. Laguna Seca’s another fantastic place. And an oval? I like Fontana to be honest! That is always great and an amazing race.

Who knows what’s gonna happen. I feel like (the) IndyCar Series needs to be at places we used to be – it’s not a complicated situation. I understand it was probably something with promoter issues or things like that but I feel that’s what they should be doing because by NOT moving away from those places, the series is going to continue growing.”

I saw my opportunity and I took it…

Me: “…I’m sad you didn’t say Cleveland.”

Helio: “Haha! Lemme think… probably, I didn’t do well there so… that’s why. You’re right though, it was a cool place, great event and people really really packed it!”

Me – ”Well you know, a lot has changed since we last raced there. Cleveland is a Championship city now, so… maybe if you come there and do well, it will lead to YOUR Championship…”

Helio: “Ahhhh!! I like that!”

That got me a high five from the 3-time Indianapolis 500 winner. (And he was right by the way, he contended in Cleveland 4 times w CART, and his best finish was 12th. Interestingly though, he podiumed with a P3 finish in Indy Lights, 1996.) But back to the topic at hand: I’ve got Castroneves on board.

1 driver down, 21 to go… and then we start a revolution! Or maybe we just start begging the series and potential promoters. I don’t have things planned out that far yet. Just know that I’m always fighting for you, Cleveland.

Ten years without open-wheel racing in this metropolis that has been reborn and revitalized in just as much time, is a missed opportunity for the series, the drivers, and the fans alike. It’s time to come back, IndyCar… and I’d be more than happy to show you around. -LFT-

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