DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Helio Castroneves seemed to be nearing the end of his storied career when Roger Penske no longer had a seat for him after 21 years, three Indianapolis 500 victories and an IMSA sports car championship.
Convinced he still had a lot of racing left in him, Castroneves searched for new rides. He teamed with Wayne Taylor Racing last year to win his first Rolex 24 at Daytona, something he failed to do in four tries with Penske, then Meyer Shank Racing took him back to Indianapolis and Castroneves broke through for his record-tying fourth victory.
That win helped develop a full program with Shank for the upcoming IndyCar season, and on Sunday Castroneves added a second consecutive Rolex watch to his collection at Daytona.
It was the headline on a spectacular day for IndyCar, which had 12 drivers in the field of 235 of the world's best endurance racers. Five IndyCar drivers left with Rolex watches and seven total scored podium finishes.
The haul could have been higher but teams featuring reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou, six-time series champion Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Jimmie Johnson dropped out of contention. Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood, set to make his IndyCar debut this season, saw his his team finish fourth.
It was a statement for IndyCar, which considers itself the most competitive series in top-level motorsports but has a hard time convincing racing fans around the world that it has the same cache as Formula One or NASCAR.
“The Indy car is a lot more difficult to drive, so we are physically fit enough to drive the Indy car and it makes it a lot easier when we come here,” said Colton Herta, the closing driver for the winning team in the LMP2 class.
IndyCar beats both F1 and NASCAR in terms of versatility with both street and road courses on the schedule, as well as ovals and the renowned Indianapolis 500. The series last year featured nine different winners over 16 races, saw four drivers go to victory lane for the first time in their IndyCar careers and had four winners 24 or younger.
Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, retired at the end of the 2020 season to pursue his childhood dream to drive Indy cars. He is scheduled to enter his first Indy 500 this May at 46 years old; Castroneves, by the way, will be 47 when he tries for a record fifth victory.
Romain Grosjean last year became the third F1 driver since 2016 to join IndyCar and loved it so much he's since moved his family from Switzerland to Florida for a full season with Andretti Autosport. Ericsson moved to IndyCar in 2019 and last season finished sixth in the championship race. Alexander Rossi won the 100th running of the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2016.
“I think last year joining IndyCar ... it was definitely a season I’ll remember for a long time,” said Grosjean. “I came in IndyCar not knowing if I was going to like the championship, if I was going to like the car, the tracks, the American life.”
His presence helped IndyCar's growth in France, much like Palou is boosting interest in Spain and Pato O'Ward is growing into a star in his native Mexico.
Grosjean said getting IndyCar races televised around the world would be a huge help for the series, but he also knows that a behind-the-scenes docuseries like Netflix's “Drive to Survive” can spur tremendous growth.
“I know France last year did 100% (more) on viewing, so they doubled what they were doing. Still not Formula 1, but it’s getting there,” Grosjean said. "But I think there’s still a perception ... what is IndyCar? Is it like the GT cars running on ovals? Oh, no, that’s NASCAR. For people that are not a hardcore fan, they still get it a little bit wrong.”
Still, two of IndyCar's bright, young stars have been eyeing moves elsewhere.
O'Ward, who turns 23 in May, tested the McLaren F1 car in December and the team could use him this season during practices at select races. Herta, who turns 22 in March, would have moved to F1 with Andretti had Michael Andretti been successful in purchasing a team last year.
They teamed with IndyCar rookie Devlin DeFrancesco for the LMP2 victory, earned with a brilliant drive by Herta. He heads this week to Sweden to represent the United States in the Race of Champions.
Many believe Herta is America's best hope to break into F1, but the FIA ruling body doesn't rate competition in the U.S.-based series very high. Herta and O'Ward do not have the super license the FIA requires to compete in F1.
“To me it’s ridiculous that someone that’s been fourth and third in the IndyCar championship can’t get 40 (required FIA) points for the super license,” O'Ward said.
Herta showed his mettle against an elite field at Daytona and now has another chance to build his reputation this weekend, racing against a slew of F1 drivers on the frozen Baltic Sea.
“We’re racing on ice, and it’s like nine World Rally champs, so I definitely have a lot of catching up to do," he said.
And like O'Ward, he does aspire to at least give F1 a try even though he loves racing in IndyCar.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to do Formula One,” Herta said. "I think people forget that I’m 21 years old and I can come back in five years and still run 15 years in IndyCar and be 40. So I'd definitely want to give it a crack if I get the opportunity.
“But I'm definitely not disappointed at all in IndyCar. I like this series more than any series in the world and I enjoy racing in a it a lot.”
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