A hotel employee spotted Helio Castroneves and excitedly approached to welcome the Team Penske driver back to Indianapolis.
“Is it the month of May yet?” asked the employee, an obvious race fan.
“No, but I hear ya,” Castroneves said. “I want the month of May to be here already. It feels like it.”
Temperatures in the low 70s greeted 11 drivers today at an Indianapolis Motor Speedway test to prepare for May’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Castroneves conceded anticipation begins before arriving in Indianapolis.
“After we practiced at Barber (Motorsports Park in Alabama) on Tuesday, we had that feeling, ‘OK, we’re going to Indy,’” the three-time Indy 500 winner said. “We come early. We know the places to go. It’s always good to come to Indy.”
The 41-year-old Brazilian’s routine includes dinner tonight at one of his favorite Indianapolis restaurants, the Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao. It’s a hearty meal fit for a king, or in this case a champion. Servers bring different types of sizzling meat to tables and carve it off spits.
Since his third Indy 500 win in 2009, Castroneves has wanted nothing more than to win No. 4 and join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in that ultimate classification. The prospect of making history heightens the sensation of being back. It might seem like just another work day from the outside looking in, but Castroneves envisions climbing that fence along the home straight after accomplishing his ultimate mission.
“Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s great to be back. Indy is just so great. Obviously the weather is helping a lot today. It feels like May. We’re excited to be back. You can see people are already watching us, the fans, they’re always great. It’s always good to come over here and prepare as much as you can for the month of May.”
Those goosebumps and that hair-tingling sensation aren’t just reserved for the guy in his 20th Indy car season. New teammate Josef Newgarden, one of the more refreshingly expressive drivers in the past five years, gushed once again about being back in town.
“How do you not get fired up?” Newgarden said. “It’s the Indianapolis 500. I get emotional just coming back to the city now, having left (to move to Charlotte near the Team Penske shop). It’s hard not to love this city. I miss it. I miss it after being away for six months now.
“This race is special, it’s special for the city, it’s special in its own right for the world. It’s the biggest sporting event that you’re going to have all year long in the world. It’s hard not to get jacked up about that. It’s a different feeling than any other race. It’s not just work. It’s an event. It’s a privilege to be a part of it as a driver.”
Newgarden replaced two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 2 Chevrolet. Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud is driving the No. 1, Castroneves returns to the familiar No. 3 and 2014 series champion Will Power is in his usual No. 12. Montoya will rejoin the team to make it a five-car May entry for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indy 500.
Newgarden, 26, Hendersonville, Tenn., is new to the powerhouse team, but is well aware of how much this race could mean to Castroneves.
“For Helio getting his fourth, he’s been close. The last couple of years, he’s been so close,” Newgarden said. “It would be so special for him and so special for (team owner Roger) Penske to have a second guy (along with Mears) with four Indy 500 wins. That would be a great end result for the team. But with Penske, we have four horses in the race and I’m sure Roger would be happy to see any one of us win it.
“We’re all going to be trying. We’re all going to be pushing each other to try to get it done. But, for sure, it would be a little more special if Helio wins it.”
Young driver or old, in March or May, Newgarden reminds that Indianapolis Motor Speedway never gets old.
“I tell everyone that,” he said. “Some racetracks, you can drive around for a full test day and towards the end of the day, it’s not that you’re bored but it just feels like the same old thing. You’re not learning a bunch sometimes. At Indianapolis, you would think it’s four corners, you kind of get bored driving around this place. That’s not the case. Any time you run around this place, it’s difficult. You’re always learning something. It’s always teaching you something as a driver.
“That’s my greatest joy of getting to drive around this place. It’s my sixth season, my sixth time that I’m going to try to for the Indianapolis 500. And it doesn’t get old.”