The IndyCar Series may have to race next year without one of its biggest stars.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves is contemplating abandoning his full-time IndyCar ride after this season to race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
If the 42-year-old Brazilian, known for climbing high atop catch fences after every victory, decides to change lanes, he would stay with Team Penske but would join the organization’s newly formed sports car team.
Sources close to Castroneves told IBJ that the racer was weighing several considerations in the move, including his age, his comfort level with sports car courses, the relative safety of the races, and Penske's desire for marquee drivers on its sports car team.
Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar Series parent Hulman & Co., admits Castroneves’ departure would be a blow to the series.
“Helio is always going to be a fan favorite,” Miles told Autoweek. “He has just had a fabulous career and has always been a magnet for fans and works hard at that. He has a very attractive personality.
"I was involved in men’s tennis for a while and saw John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and those guys cycle through. In professional sports,what happens is young stars come up and eventually take their place. We’ll see what happens with Helio. We want to see him race as long as possible.”
Team Penske President Tim Cindric told Autoweek the team has talked to Castroneves about the future, including teaming with two-time Indianapolis 500-winning driver Juan Pablo Montoya on the yet-to-be-announced Penske sports car team. But, Cindric added, nothing is definitive.
Castroneves has long been one of the open-wheel series' most popular drivers, and this fame received a turbo-boost when he won ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" in 2007.
Castroneves has won 30 IndyCar races and 50 pole positions, but he has never won the IndyCar Series championship. That might change this year.
After his victory in Iowa on Sunday, Castroneves is in second place in this year’s series standings. With six races left on the 17-race 2017 schedule, Castroneves trails Scott Dixon by just eight points. He is 23 points ahead of third-place Simon Pagenaud.
If Castroneves does retire, he would be the second three-time Indianapolis 500 champ to do so in the last four years. Dario Franchitti retired following a bad crash in Houston, the second-to-last race of the 2013 season.
But Castroneves may not be quite done in Indianapolis just yet. Sources close to Team Penske told IBJ that even if Castroneves races sports cars full-time next year, he would still compete in the Indianapolis 500, going for a record-tying fourth victory.