Race-car drivers generally don’t get credit for being athletes in the truest sense of the word, but their sport does have its unique demands.
Obviously, they must have superior hand-eye coordination to be able to pilot those cars around racetracks at speeds over 200 mph. They must be able to withstand the triple-digit heat that can accumulate in their vehicles as they negotiate sun-scorched Southern tracks on hot summer days. They also must be able to handle the G-forces resulting from taking turns at high speeds.
And then there’s the laser-beamlike focus they must maintain for three-plus hours to keep their speeding cars on track, away from other cars and hopefully headed to victory.
It’s that last attribute that three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves says he put to good use on the dance floor almost six years ago to win Season 5 of “Dancing With the Stars.”
“I think the driving … helped the dancing, to be honest with you,” Castroneves, who will be in the 33-car field at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, airing Sunday, May 26, on ABC, tells Zap2it.
“Because it’s a different environment, it’s a completely different atmosphere, an uncomfortable atmosphere because obviously you’re dancing, but I feel that that helped tremendously — maintaining focus and going for it, not thinking about people watching me. Those are the biggest (things) that happen so that I could execute and make it happen on the dance floor.”
Sunday, the 38-year-old Brazilian and 12-year IndyCar veteran will try to make it happen on the racetrack against a field that includes fellow past winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, 2012 IndyCar series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti, and Will Power.
He’s had plenty of success there in the past, having won the races in 2001, 2002 and 2009 and taken pole positions in ’03, ’07, ’09 and ’10. In fact, in 12 races there, he’s finished out of the top 10 only twice.
As for why he’s been as successful as he’s been at Indy, Castroneves says, “Several things. The main one is the team. Certainly Team Penske has won 15 times, so your odds get higher when you have great equipment and great people behind you. You’ve just got to go in and make it happen. And being in the right place at the right time. When you put yourself into a scenario, you’re able to execute and make it happen.
“So I feel at this point that we’re all looking good, and as long as they don’t change the rules like they did last year related to the turbo, as long as they keep it the same way, I feel that we have a great chance this season to achieve a number four, which is certainly a dream come true.”
This will be Castroneves’ 13th race at the hallowed Brickyard. His first year, 2001, he admits he was initially intimidated by the 2.5-mile quad oval and its four distinct turns that drivers say make it drive more like a road course than an oval.
“Each corner is very different. They look the same, but they are very, very different,” Castroneves says.
“My first impression is the same one it’s always been,” he says. “It’s been kind of like a unique place. You approach the corners with so much speed. And when you first go to the race, it could change completely because the grandstand is full of people, and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ The perception, the vision plays games a little bit until after a few laps, (when) you get used to it. But it’s something where only when you go there and visit that you see how cool this place is and how amazing this place is.”
Away from the track, Castroneves became a minor celebrity of sorts in 2007 with his surprisingly nimble and spirited performances and eventual victory with partner Julianne Hough on “DWTS.”
“Oh, man, I was completely out of it,” says the man known as the “bubbly Brazilian” of his expectations for the competition. “My goal was to not be the first one eliminated. It’s like, ‘I’ve got to find someone who’s worse than me … . Hopefully I’ll be able to make it.’ And then at the end of the day, what a surprise!
“In my family, the only dancing experience (belongs to) my sister,”?he continues. “She used to be a professional ballerina. And I used to watch her – well, I wasn’t going to watch her; I was going to watch her friends – but again, that was the closest experience I had for dancing.”
His sister also happened to be a fan of “DWTS.”
“Certainly she enjoyed it more than I because she knew about the game,” Castroneves says, “and she did a hell of a job of just keeping me sane. Because I have to say the dancers are incredible athletes.”
Not unlike race-car drivers.