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Castroneves Smiles Way to Indy Pole

Brazilian zooms through winds of 30 mph and will go after his third victory in a row in the 500 by starting from the No. 1 position.

May 12, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves, one of the happiest of the happy-go-lucky Brazilians, won the Indianapolis 500 from the 11th and 13th starting positions the last two years.

This year he will start the May 25 race from the pole in one of Roger Penske's Toyota-powered Dallaras in his effort to become the first driver in 87 years to win three consecutive 500s.

Castroneves, who turned 28 on Saturday, defied gusts of 30 mph that confounded drivers all day Sunday to put together four laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile rectangular oval at an average of 231.725 mph to take the $100,000 MBPA pole award.

It continued the domination of Roger Penske as a car owner here. His cars have won 12 races and Castroneves' pole was the team's 12th.

Toyota became the first Japanese engine manufacturer to have a car on the pole at Indianapolis.

Castroneves waited until late in the day to take to the track, waiting for the winds to subside. When it became apparent it wasn't going to happen, Penske sent him out to shoot at the 231.006 posted a few hours earlier by Brazilian Tony Kanaan, a lifetime friend of Castroneves.

It was Kanaan who plastered Castroneves' face with a birthday cake on TV Saturday. A day later, the birthday boy got his revenge. The two, both 28, have been racing against each other since they were teens, winning karting titles around Sao Paulo.

"This is one of the best days of my life, it's fantastic, a dream come true," said Castroneves, who usually celebrates victories by climbing fences.

"It is a wonderful Mother's Day present. She is very happy right now. She's been so supportive. Wow, just an incredible day."

Kanaan did not seem too disappointed, particularly after having come back from a serious wrist injury from a crash in Japan that threatened his entry.

"When I first got hurt, people told me that it would be Bump Day [May 18] before I could drive the car," he said. "And if Mario [Andretti] had qualified it for me, as he said he would, I might never have got it back. I think Mario would have put this car on the pole and then he'd be telling Michael [Andretti] that he wanted to go racing in the 500.

"Helio and I have been racing against each other for 20 years, so what he did was no surprise. I think you have to look at the facts. There's always someone better than you."

Penske, who has seen Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Unser and Tom Sneva win poles for him, lauded his newest contributor.

"I think today really authenticates how good Helio really is because when it was time to go, I saw some great times there, 230, 230 and a half," Penske said.

Robby Gordon, on leave from his Winston Cup duties, prevented it from being an all-foreign-driver front row when he averaged 230.205 in one of the four Andretti Green Racing cars. That was enough to drop New Zealand rookie Scott Dixon to fourth at 230.099 in the fastest G-Force.

Gordon blamed himself for getting more out of his Honda-Dallara because of a slow first lap. His first lap of 228.829 was bettered by eight drivers.

"I was definitely too conservative on my warmup lap coming to the green flag and I didn't have enough speed when I hit the [starting] line," said the off-road racing veteran from Orange who plans to drive in the 500 and then fly to Charlotte, N.C., to drive in the Winston Cup Coca-Cola 600 stock car race the same night.

Temperatures in the low 50s, the wind and Mother's Day contributed to what appeared to be the smallest qualifying-day crowd in recent history. Rain and a tornado warning Saturday caused the time trials to be postponed a day.

Those who came were treated to a busy day as 24 cars made successful qualifying runs. The remainder of what Speedway officials hope will be a 33-car field will qualify next Sunday on what may be an ill-named Bump Day.

The only cars left when the 6 p.m. gun went off were ones assigned to two-time winner Arie Luyendyk, Billy Boat, Shigeaki Hattori and Jimmy Kite, all of whom are recovering from injuries and decided to wait a week before making an attempt.

Another car is awaiting CART driver Jimmy Vasser, who finished eighth in the German 500 on Sunday. If all qualify, that would make only 29 cars for the 500.

A.J. Foyt IV, 18-year-old grandson of four-time winner A.J., became the youngest driver in 500 history to qualify when he came back after spinning out in his first attempt and put together a 224.177 average.

"There was a lot of luck involved, especially the spin," Foyt said. "I looked on the computer and I was going 168 mph backward. I was surprised I didn't hit anything.

"It's been a heck of an experience, being 18 and just trying to do the best that I can. This is what I love and I know my grandfather wouldn't have me here if he didn't think I was ready and wouldn't do any good."

Of the 24 qualifiers, eight are rookies.

Some of the veteran drivers admitted to being spooked by the wind.

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