“This one’s for Dan,” Helio Castroneves radioed to his crew as he brought his race car to a stop along the newly dedicated “Dan Wheldon Way” on the St. Petersburg waterfront race course.
Moments earlier, he took the checkered flag in Sunday’s IndyCar Series season-opener and, in keeping with his trademark, victory fence-climbing tradition, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner scaled the wire fencing in front of the Turn 10 grandstands pumping his fist and shouting toward the fans.
Then he crossed the track to climb another fence where a temporary street sign with Wheldon’s name hung high. Castroneves touched the sign, climbed down and brought his hands together as in prayer.
The gesture drew a huge response from the fans. The popular Brazilian driver didn’t anticipate the emotion it would evoke in himself as he honored Wheldon, a two-time Indy winner who died in a 15-car accident in the series’ 2011 season finale on Oct. 16.
“You guys know I am a very emotional person but as soon as I got there, I felt very touched seeing his name there ,’’ said Castroneves who became the first three-time winner of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. “We all still hurt. I was thinking of my family and thinking of Dan’s family that’s why there was a little more emotion, that’s why it was good."
“I have to be honest, I just had planned to change the corner where I celebrate and pick a different one from Turn One. So I stopped in Turn 10. I didn’t plan this. But as soon as I celebrated and looked to my left and saw Dan’s name … well you cannot question God’s mystery and I just decided it was the perfect fit for this race and the perfect way to start the season.’’
This victory — in Wheldon’s adopted hometown — may have “been for Dan.” But it was also very much for Castroneves, who in 2011 endured the worst season of what’s been a distinguished 14-year career.
Last season marked the first time Castroneves did not win a race since 1999. He had nine finishes of 17th or worse and finished outside the championship top 10 for the first time since joining Team Penske in 2000, while his teammate Will Power was the championship runner-up for the second year in a row.
“For our group it was important (to win right away),’’ said Castroneves, who was awarded the winner’s trophy by Wheldon’s younger sister, Holly. “We never lost confidence, we never stopped believing, especially this offseason.
“It’s important for us as a group to know that we can do it. I think now at this point, with a new car, new engine, it gives you a fresh start.
“As of right now, obviously this is a fantastic feeling.’’
And, as Castroneves’ alluded to, his victory was also “one for the IZOD IndyCar Series,” which embarks on a new era with competing engine manfacturers, a new chassis, rewritten rule book and a new face making crucial decisions in race control and the palpable absence of the series’ most popular driver, Danica Patrick, who races full time in NASCAR now.
So much of the lead-up to this week has been about Wheldon’s death and questions about safety and the potential of the new cars, and much less about the actual racing. In the end, Sunday’s race was clean, exciting and ultimately a feel-good moment in what’s been a winter of harsh opinion, wide speculation and lingering loss.
“The boys and girls did a good job today,’’ said smiling third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of one of four Chevrolets among the top five Sunday. “I figured with the long offseason and carbon brakes, it was going to be a brain meltdown at times. "
Castroneves agreed that Sunday’s race would set the tone for the season.
“I believe it was crucial (to have a good race),’’ he said. “We got new cars, new manufacturers, new person in charge, new rules, so many new things we didn’t know because it was the first race.
“Everybody learned a lot today.’’
And both Hunter-Reay and Sunday’s race runner-up Scott Dixon — the lone Honda among the top five — applauded Castroneves’ tribute to Wheldon. Dixon and his family actually moved from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg to support Wheldon’s widow Susie and her two young boys.
“It’s only the next race since the tragedy happened in Vegas,’’ Hunter-Reay said. “So it is still wide open, the wound.
“He’s just a great champion of our sport. We love the Wheldons and today, he was there with us in every way. We wish we could have him back.’’
In lieu of that impossibility, perhaps the next-best thing is to create that sense of promise and glass half-full that Wheldon was so good at delivering.
In many ways, the effusive Castroneves is the perfect answer to taking the next step. Of honoring Wheldon by doing exactly what he used to do: connecting with the fans and winning races.
“Certainly this is gratifying and I will sleep like an angel tonight,’’ Castroneves said. “This is awesome. After a horrible year last year, it is great to start off this way.’’