Helio Castroneves: Leading Man

Three Indy wins. The bombshell dance partner. A sudden rise to stardom. You’d be smiling, too.

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Editor’s Note: Brazilian IndyCar legend Helio Castroneves returns this month to the scene of his three Indianapolis 500 victories. Here, our cover feature on him from May 2008. (See photos of him at work and at play here.)

Helio Castroneves whistles as he taps down the winding marble staircase in his Coral Gables mansion. No discernible tune, just a happy array of notes punctuated by a bright “Good morning” as he hits the sunlit landing.

It’s 10 a.m., and Helio seems rested after a late night testing his racecar beneath the lights at Miami-Homestead Speedway, 30 minutes south of here. He struts back into the shady nook of the kitchen, where he takes breakfast standing up—orange juice and a corn muffin halved on a paper napkin. It’s just an ordinary grocery-store muffin, but to watch Helio eat, one would think it was a piece of lightly buttered heaven. Even as he chews, the corners of his mouth creep upward into a satisfied grin.

Of course, it might not just be the muffin. From where he stands, he can see the Florida sunshine blasting through broad windows into his living room, bouncing over the marble floor, and glaring off a vast collection of crystal, gold, and silver racing trophies—most from his years in the IndyCar Racing Series, two from a pair of Indy 500 wins. Especially blinding is the light breaking upon the Mirror Ball Trophy, his spoils as champion of Dancing with the Stars, the wildly popular TV show that, starting last October, thrust the 32-year-old Brazilian into the national spotlight. In the background, he can literally hear the clamor of his celebrity, the clanks and thuds of an ESPN television production crew setting up for a shoot on his back terrace.

Maybe he is just happy to be home. Before the 2007 IndyCar season even ended last September, Helio was practically living in Hollywood, working up to eight hours a day in preparation for Dancing and filling his spare moments granting interviews to TV Guide, Access Hollywood, and Entertainment Tonight. When Dancing wrapped in late November, Helio appeared in nearly every major media outlet, and even signed up for several stops on the Dancing live tour in January. Today, he has three interviews and the ESPN shoot before he has to jump back on the turnpike to Homestead for another night of testing. He estimates he has spent maybe 20 of the last 60 days sleeping in his own bed. And this is the off-season.

But at least he’s eating in his own kitchen, where he can spend a few fleeting moments with his older sister and business manager, Kati, who has just come upstairs to greet her brother with more exciting news. “Last night I felt the baby,” she says, running her hand over her pregnant belly. “I felt him move for the first time.”

The unborn child’s future godfather wraps an arm around his sister. And in this private moment, with so many tokens of a fruitful life in orbit around him, Helio beams. People seeing him from afar might think the smile, the unwavering joy, is just an act, the mere deflection of all the attention. They think it can’t be real. But it is. Helio loves being the star—craves it, even. But when the cameras have shut off, when the spotlights are cold and motionless, Helio seems to create a light of his own.

First comes the laugh. Whether he’s approaching reporters poised at a media event, fans ambushing for autographs, or a pit crew ready to talk strategy, the throaty chuckle signals Helio’s arrival. Then the man comes into view, smile at the ready. He engages each face, stranger or friend, calling the men by name or “chief” or “my man.” To those he even casually knows, he’ll hold his fist up, pinky out, thumb to his ear, and say “Call me,” and “We partying tonight?” He’ll show the women some dance moves, take their hands, bring them to his chest, twirl them and dip. And for an instant they share a laugh as friends, part of Helio’s perfect world. Then he moves on, leaving his smile stretched across their faces.

After two hours at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offices being led from video shoot to photo shoot to audio recording session, creating promotional materials for the 500 and the rest of the upcoming 2008 season, Helio is still cracking wise. And in the grind of tedious media work, standing in the floodlights of a photo studio dressed in his red Penske fire suit, all he asks for is his helmet. He wants the media-relations assistant to toss it to him.

“That’s why things break,” the man says, opting to hand the helmet safely to Helio.

“You can’t talk to me like that,” Helio responds.

Helio’s face scrunches up. A moment of confused tension sweeps across the room. Then, Helio suddenly releases a laugh like he’s coming up for air. The assistant laughs, too.

“But I can talk to you like that,” pipes up the photographer. “Helmet on the ground, foot on top.”

Helio obliges, striking a pose, flashing the smile. “Is this too much like Captain Morgan?” he quips.

“I know you can’t possibly stand there and not smile,” says the photographer.

“Why do you want mean?” says Helio, giving his best shot at serious. “Tell Danica to be mean. She looks better when she’s mean. Wait—don’t tell her I said that.”

“No smiles, Helio!”

The back-and-forth continues for a few minutes, the photographer trying to get Helio to straighten up, Helio playing the clown through a series of poses with his helmet as a prop. Suddenly, in the middle of shooting, Helio holds up his hands and stops the photographer because he spots a smudge on the helmet’s tinted visor. The assistant comes in with a tissue. “It’s from your greasy palms,” he says.

“Hey,” again posing prima donna, “don’t talk to me.”

When the shoot wraps, the lights go down, but Helio is still on. He signs a picture for the photographer, who then introduces Helio to his daughter and her fiance, who’ve been watching from the corner of the room. The couple has just returned from tours of duty with the Army in Iraq. They wonder if they could have their picture taken with the star.

Helio doesn’t hesitate. He takes their hands, pats them on the back then turns to smile at the camera. And with a few pops of the flashbulb, he’s gone, off to record some radio spots. The couple stands in awe, talking about how real he seemed, “just like on TV.” In the distance they can still hear his laugh careening down the hallway.

 

In the Helio camp, the actual Mirror Ball Trophy is widely regarded as a cheap piece of crap.

Indeed, the honeydew-sized disco ball seems insecurely fastened to its base, and the lettering is falling off, the word “with” swinging on a nail by the loop of its cursive “h.” Yet this trophy occupies a place of honor in his living room, atop the center pedestal between his baby Borg-Warner trophies, in the front window overlooking the courtyard fountain.

In five months, that shoddy piece of hardware has brought Helio more notoriety than all the other trophies combined. It has made him a household name. And although Helio relishes any attention, he doesn’t want Hollywood fame for its own sake. He’s not an actor. He’s a racecar driver, and he wants more of the world to notice.

As a 10-year veteran of American open-wheel racing, Helio has watched his sport gradually eclipsed by NASCAR. He has seen his league combat this by trying to promote other drivers. There was Dan Wheldon, the brash young Brit who won races but whose cocksure persona and pretty-boy ways never registered with fans. Then came Danica Patrick, the pinup girl who despite some staying power has yet to win a race and emerge as a true superstar. Helio believes, has always believed, that he has the blend of off-the-track charm and on-the-track ability to carry open-wheel back to racing’s center stage. “I want that weight on my shoulders,” he says. “We just had to find a way to get our message out there.”

And not just any way. Around 2004, another ABC reality show, The Bachelor, came calling. But Helio turned down the title role because he felt it didn’t mesh with his wholesome image. “It wasn’t clean,” he says. Plus there was his longtime girlfriend, Miami business executive Aliette Vazquez, to whom he became engaged in 2006.

But Dancing—which pairs C-list celebrities with professional dancers in an elimination dance-off—looked right. Entering its fifth season, the show had become a cultural phenomenon. Almost 20 million people tuned in weekly to watch the likes of Jerry Springer, rapper Master P, and boxer Evander Holyfield try their feet at dancing. “The only risks were if I fell and hurt myself,” says Helio. “Or if I was a horrible dancer.”

“The only risks were if I fell and hurt myself,” says Helio. “Or if I was a horrible dancer.”

In August, with racing winding down, Helio and a cast that included Marie Osmond, Mark Cuban, and Wayne Newton met their partners in L.A. and began rehearsals. Over the 10-week season the pairs performed before a panel of judges, whose scores were then combined with call-in and Internet votes from fans at home. The team with the lowest cumulative score was eliminated. But more than a dance contest, the show was a reality-TV soap opera. Each episode featured behind-the-scenes footage of the teams rehearsing. Viewers saw the relationship between star and pro from the first meeting, watching them evolve into rivalry, friendship, and, in some cases, what at least looked like romance.

Enter Helio’s partner Julianne Hough, a 19-year-old blond knockout and reigning Dancing champion. Every week eager viewers tuned in to watch the melodrama: Hough leading the inexperienced Brazilian through his first steps. The elation in Week 2 when their mambo received the highest score. Helio driving her in a convertible down to the beach to “get in the mood” for the rumba in Week 5, dancing in the sand before an orange sunset. Then rock bottom when that rumba did not please the judges.

In Week 6—the cha-cha—the pair seemed to click. As the sensual performances became more natural, their scores climbed. Soon the two were everywhere in the media together, from ESPN to 20/20 to Entertainment Tonight. The IndyCar Series launched a “Vote Helio” campaign, distributing T-shirts, buttons, and yard signs, and sending e-mail reminders to more than 80,000 addresses each week to vote for the electric duo.

Then in Week 8, the quickstep, Helio dipped Julianne and bent to give her a brief kiss. The audience erupted.

In the finals, Helio and Julianne did an encore of the quickstep—complete with an extended kiss. And although their judges’ score only totaled 84, behind an 85 for Spice Girl Melanie Brown, the judges were overruled by the fans at home, who had fallen in love with the couple.

The day after Helio and Julianne were crowned champions, Vazquez announced that the engagement was off. Had he sacrificed personal privacy in exchange for fame? “You don’t need to be someone you’re not to be famous,” he says. The break-up was “a shame,” but Vazquez is a “fantastic person,” and he was “sure we’re going to be friends.” In other words, Helio was not about to let controversy cloud the moment.

Today, Helio and Julianne maintain they are just friends. But the public who saw the kiss, and wanted so much to believe that it was more than just part of a pre-rehearsed dance routine, would not be denied. Could chemistry like that be faked? In January, at a closed rehearsal for the Dancing live tour, in front of 18,000 dark and empty seats, the two were playful and flirtatious, exchanging smiles, embraces, and little pats on the butt between numbers. Nothing that screamed romance. But nothing to dispel that notion, either. And ever the gentleman, Helio won’t say anything more about it.

 

He keeps telling the camera he’s a racecar. Helio is shooting a public-service announcement about safe driving but keeps tripping over the introduction, adding an “are” to the line “We race cars for a living.”

The crew takes five so Helio can modify the script to accommodate his heavy accent. He steps aside to read over some of the lines about the three-second rule with a reporter from Sports Illustrated. The reporter interrupts.

“Man, I’ve ridden with you,” he says. “You don’t follow the three-second rule.”

“I know,” replies Helio. “I actually got into a wreck on the way here.”

“I thought, ‘No one is that happy all the time.’ Helio is.”

He tells it like a joke: Running late in the inside lane of a roundabout, he was trying to pass a business van when the driver cut him off and sideswiped his Acura RL. He lets slip a smile as he admits that he may have been going a bit fast, but, laughing, he says the other guy should have been paying better attention. And to make his point, Helio says that he later called the 1-800-how’s-my-driving number, identified himself, and explained the incident to the astonished manager.

While relating the tale, Helio begins fidgeting with the front of his suit, readjusting the transmitter for the wireless microphone in his hip pocket. Just then, a female IndyCar Series representative passes by, giving him a look. “Hey it’s my mic,” Helio yells. “I’m not holding my pee-pee.”

There’s no outrage, no controversy. The woman just laughs. The reporter barely bats an eye. Just Helio being Helio. Perhaps a little too comfortable around the media. But the media being too comfortable around Helio to care.

After finishing his script changes, Helio retakes his place in front of the camera. And on the first take, he clearly points out that he races cars for a living.

 

Helio’s father spent his weekdays as an industrial plumber working on pipes in the sugar mills in and around Ribeirao Preto City, Brazil. But his passion was racing. He used what extra money he earned to fund a small stock-car team that raced in nearby Sao Paulo on the weekends.

At age 6, Helio would go with his father to the races. Children were not allowed into the pits but, decked out in a tiny fire suit, Helio would crawl into the trunk of the family car so his father could smuggle him in. During the race, his sister Kati says, Helio made a game of sneaking peeks at the colorful racecars while ducking behind pit-crew members and stacks of tires when track security was near. When Helio was 7, one of his father’s drivers gave him a child-sized motorized car that Helio drove ceaselessly around the streets of his family’s gated community. Soon he asked dad for his first go-kart, in which he would compete on the Brazilian Kart circuits over the next few years.

In 1989, after Helio won the Brazilian Kart national title at age 14, his father took him aside. To be sure that he wasn’t pushing his son into his own dream, his father asked Helio, “Do you still want to be a driver?” The son never faltered.

By 1995, 20-year-old Helio was racing British Formula 3, homesick and lonely in the cold of England. His father attended every race. A year later Helio finished second in the Indy Lights Series, a developmental league for IndyCar. The next year he picked up a ride in CART, and that’s where he caught the attention of one of the biggest teams in motor sports, Penske Racing. According to Penske president Tim Cindric, despite a youthful impatience on the track, Helio impressed with his versatility. He raced well in every car he climbed in, on every kind of track. The company was also taken by the way the young driver carried himself. “We knew he was a Penske kind of guy because of his sincere personality,” Cindric says. “I thought there was no way he could be that real. No one is that happy all the time. But he is.”

He knows that the only lap you have to lead is the last.

Upon joining Team Penske in 2000, Helio made an immediate impact. He won his first CART race that year in Detroit, where he scaled the fence and earned the nickname “Spiderman.” The following year, he made history as the eighth driver to win his debut at Indy. In 2002, he became the fifth driver in history to win back-to-back 500s.

In 2003, trying for an unprecedented third straight Indy win, Helio lost to his Penske teammate and countryman Gil de Ferran by less than a third of a second. But rather than moping, Helio helped de Ferran climb the fence to celebrate his victory. And that gesture, de Ferran says, as much as anything, explains Helio’s success. “The way Helio deals with disappointment is a lesson to all,” says de Ferran. “He takes it in, digests it, and then he moves on.”

By the time Helio arrives at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he has already spent three hours in front of the cameras at the IMS. Now he has one last shootfor the cover of this magazinebefore hopping on a flight back to Miami.

After a quick costume change into a tuxedo behind a screen in the museum lunchroom, Helio makes his way to a third-floor gallery where he is to be photographed before artist Ingrid Calame’s colorful tracings of tire marks from the pavement of the Brickyard. Helio shows a keen interest as his museum guide explains the various pieces. His mother is an amateur artist, he says. She would love this.

As Helio runs through his poses with a mirror-ball prop, more than a dozen people gather to watch. Most are museum employees who have ventured from their offices to catch a glimpse of the visiting star. Some of them are wearing their “Vote Helio” buttons. Sensing the attention, Helio starts to cut up, putting the ball on his back like Atlas and even sliding into a few dancing moves. The large room fills with raucous laughter. When the 45-minute shoot is over, even though he is trying to catch a flight, Helio stays to have his picture taken with every onlooker who requests it.

As he makes his way tot he exit, Helio’s entourage thins. The photo crew stays to tear down the set and go on talking about “how real,” “how photogenic,” and “oh, how much fun” the star has been. One-by-one and two-by-two, the museum employees break off, chatting happily back to their desks. Passing the gift shop, his museum guide hands him a book of photographs of the Calame exhibit to give to his mother, then says goodbye with her own souvenir Helio smile. Then there are only two other people around himno audience, no cameras, no lights beyond the lightning that cuts across the stormy gray afternoon. And in a driving rain, it is Helio who stops to hold the door as the pair walks through.

>> BONUS: See photos of Helio at work and at play here.

Photos by Tony Valainis and courtesy of the IndyCar Series.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue.

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