Helio Castroneves, a household name for racing fans and millions who followed his success on Dancing with the Stars when he and partner Julianne Hough upset Spice Girl Melanie Brown to win the competition, came out to SunLife stadium in Miami this weekend to lend support to the Dan Marino Foundation’s Walk for Autism. Nearly 10,000 showed up Saturday to walk, learn, share, and help raise $500,000 to support local programs for children and families affected by autism.
When Castroneves won the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars in 2007, he said, “It will look so good between my two Indy 500 trophies.” In 2009, just before welcoming a daughter into the world with longtime girlfriend Adriana Henaohe, he won his third.
This weekend, Castroneves, 35, talked about how he went from karting to becoming one the world’s most successful race car drivers, the impact his father had on his life and career, what it’s like to be more famous for dancing then racing, and a book he hopes will inspire others to overcome challenges in their lives.
How did you get started in racing?
My dad owned a small stock-car race team in Brazil. I came on board watching that–and I fell in love with it. But I didn’t want to be a team owner. I wanted to be the driver. One of the drivers gave me a go-kart when I was little and it was just the best. In 1987 I competed in the national championship series in São Paulo. I didn’t start very well, but I loved it. All of us kids would race against each other in the mornings and then at lunchtime we would play soccer. It was just a great time. Then I won my first race and got my first trophy and from then on the bug had bitten me. I couldn’t get rid of it.
How did you get involved in IndyCar with Roger Penske?
I was racing British Formula Three and my Latin America sponsor said they wanted to move me up, but not in Europe. They wanted to sponsor me in America. I was like, America? OK, here we go!
In the beginning I had a lot of crashes. I moved up to Indy racing in 1998, but it was with very small teams. I finished second a few times, showing potential, but the equipment we had wasn’t the best. Unfortunately, a very good racecar driver, Greg Moore, had a fatal crash in 1999. He’d signed with Roger Penske for the 2000 season. At that time, I was heading back to Brazil. Roger Penske and I ended up talking and I ended up signing with the team. And I would say it was destiny. It wasn’t Roger’s decision, it wasn’t my decision–it was the guy upstairs who decided.
When I first started racing for Roger I felt kind of uncomfortable because it’s tough to be in this situation. Until Greg’s mom came to me and said, “Listen, no worries. I heard you in interviews saying you’re not here to replace anybody, but don’t worry, I’m sure that’s the way it should be.” And that for me was so important, to have that blessing from her.
With Roger we ended up winning three Indy 500s. We still haven’t won a championship, but I want to at least hopefully tie the record for most wins at Indy with the biggest name, Rick Mears [Indy 500 winner in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991.] We’re almost there.
After your time on Dancing with the Stars you’ve stayed in the spotlight, and in America you’ve basically become a household name, and really it’s not even because of racing.
That’s true. Winning the Indy 500 was a big deal, but being on Dancing with the Stars, I had no idea, having 20 million people watching you every week, how well known you become. And right after that was when I was charged with tax evasion in Miami. So basically I went from winning the Indy 500 to Dancing with the Stars and then to tax evasion, and I was like, OK, that’s it, my career’s over. Then I finished everything with that [tax case], I go to Indy and win again, and it was like, OK, here we go!
What prompted you to write a book?
I wanted to tell my story and emphasize for people that we might have different problems, but we all face problems, and here’s how I was able to keep myself positive, how I was able to cope.
There was a time when I didn’t know what was going to happen with my career, and my biggest fear was taking the racing away. I love what I do, and that would be like taking air from me.
I also talk about my faith, the fight for justice, family and all the little things in life that are important. The book is not about racing. It’s about the ups and downs we all face. It’s about giving people inspiration, especially teenagers who sometimes don’t know which direction to go. Follow your heart is what I tell them. If you have a dream, you’ve got to pursue it.
I say a lot in the book that God has a plan. And I’ll tell you, for me, I love the plan.