Six Brazilian lead IRL season debut in Sao Paulo

Helio Castroneves went through more last year than most people do in a lifetime. From being put on trial for tax evasion and being found innocent of the charges to winning a third Indianapolis 500 and becoming a father, one of the sport’s most engaging drivers was swept up and down in a veritable storm of emotions.

With his ordeals behind him, Castroneves leads the IZOD IndyCar Series into this weekend’s Sao Paulo Indy 300 as one of seven Brazilian competitors racing in front of their countrymen. A strong finish could wind up being his first step toward the one prize that has eluded him in his stellar career — an open-wheel championship.

However, Castroneves has a higher priority in mind for 2010, the year that, hopefully for his sake, his life returns to relative normalcy.

“I cannot wait to be on the podium with my daughter,” he said, referring to his child Mikaella, born in late December. “That’s going to be my biggest goal this year to have that experience. In the future one day, she can see that she was there with me. That will mean the world to me.”

The little one may not have to wait long. Like the other Brazilian drivers — Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, Raphael Matos, Mario Moraes, and newcomers Ana Beatriz and Mario Romancini — Castroneves is champing at the bit to battle for a win on Sao Paulo’s 2.3-mile temporary street circuit. Sunday’s event is the first American open-wheel racing event in Brazil since 2000, and with the energy starting to build in the South American metropolis, the anxiousness to perform for the home crowd is rising as well.

"As a Brazilian getting ready to open the season in Brazil, it is hard to explain the excitement and the pressure that I’m feeling,” Kanaan said. “Our fans in Brazil are so passionate for us and so supportive of us, but they will expect nothing less than a win on Sunday.”

“I couldn’t be more excited for a race,” said Matos, last year’s IndyCar rookie of the year. “It’s important because it’s the first race of the year, but it’s in my home country and I’m racing in front of my people. I’ve dreamed of doing this and now it’s like a dream come true for me, racing in Brazil with my fans, friends and family around. It’s for sure going to be a different atmosphere.”

But while the group will have the crowd on their side, they and the rest of the grid will have to learn the 11-turn course that winds around the city’s Anhembi convention center. Making things tougher is that the 24 drivers (five of them are rookies) will only have one day of practice and qualifying to do it before Sunday’s 75-lap main event.

The Tony Cotman-designed course features multiple passing zones and rhythm sections, but the major feature is the backstretch that goes for nearly a full mile. That long drag leads into the final turn, a 180-degree right-hand hairpin that takes cars into the Sambadromo straight and back to the start/finish line. The surface also switches from asphalt to concrete at the Sambadromo, which makes for another challenge to go along with dealing with the draft on the backstretch and coming down from almost 200 miles per hour to get through the hairpin.

“I think it’s going to be interesting, especially because everybody knows when you have two cars side-by-side, it creates a great draft for the guy behind,” Castroneves surmised. “If you have three guys battling for the lead, imagine the last corner, one of the hardest braking areas of the circuit, one turn before the finish line. It will be something. It will be an incredible finish.”

That would definitely be great for the IZOD IndyCar Series, which enters 2010 after an off-season of major change. The potential boost gets bigger should a Brazilian driver win on Sunday; although Formula One remains the top draw amongst the country’s racing faithful, a decent number of IndyCar followers presumably stand to be gained this weekend.

For that and many reasons, Sunday may wind up being one of the more pivotal moments in the IRL’s history, as it attempts to bring American open-wheel racing back to full strength. A stronger international profile may help accelerate that process.

“It’s great to give the opportunity to the Brazilian fans to see an IndyCar race right there, going right past by them,” said Castroneves. “It’s been 10 years that [Indy-style racing] has not been in Brazil, but there are people that are really fans [of the sport]. They follow on TV, but the general public sometimes doesn’t know about it.

“Now it’s a great, great opportunity to show them what American fans are able to see.”