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Bill Dwyre

Castroneves races to own defense

May 23, 2008|Bill Dwyre

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was backpedaling here Thursday almost as fast as he can drive. He had created a tempest in a teapot, a minor public relations glitch whose only real downside was bad timing.

It started Monday night, while he was in Los Angeles for an appearance on the TV show "Dancing With the Stars." Castroneves had dinner with The Times' racing writer Jim Peltz. Over dinner, Peltz asked whether Castroneves had ever considered taking his considerable driving talents to the competing race circuit, NASCAR.

Castroneves said he had, that he was somewhat interested.

There was context to the question and precedent to the answer. Last year's Indy winner, Dario Franchitti, now drives for NASCAR. So does Castroneves' former Penske racing teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., who won the race in 2006, plus Juan Pablo Montoya, who won in 2000.

Were Castroneves to win this year's race and take his lead foot to NASCAR for next season, it would mean that six of the last nine Indy champions would be elsewhere, driving stock cars in the month of May.

When the story circulated nationally, Castroneves was in a bit of a bind.

This is Indy's big unification year. After years of sharing the open-wheel racing world with a second circuit, and with open-wheel racing playing second fiddle in marketing and general fan interest to NASCAR, Indy officials wanted no deviation of attention this month to the evil empire to the south.

But Castroneves, one of the most media-and-fan-friendly drivers to come along in years, stuck his foot in Peltz's notebook. That meant several days of damage control, including media day here Thursday.

To his credit, Castroneves never said he was misquoted, the usual sports star cop-out. But he did dance, something at which he is obviously quite good.

"You ask any driver," he said, "and he'll tell you he is interested in other kinds of racing. That's just natural. Right now, I love what I'm doing. I hope we can have a great race Sunday. That's all I'm thinking about."

But the NASCAR question kept coming up, as waves of reporters came and went.

At various times, Castroneves said, "I thought my English was better than that." And, "Maybe it was a little noisy in the restaurant."

Even later, he offered that maybe what he said was "miscontented." Unlike Roger Clemens, he did not say that he "misremembered."

Interestingly, the man who owns Castroneves' race team, Roger Penske, has teams in both the IndyCar Series and NASCAR, and it was Penske who allowed Hornish to switch to his NASCAR team for this season. Apparently, Penske had the good sense not to talk about that the week before the Indy 500.

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The official celebrity starter for the race, scheduled to be boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., will be former figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi recently succeeded Castroneves as a reigning champion of "Dancing With the Stars." Mayweather pulled out of the Indy duty because his uncle, Tony Sinclair, died last weekend.

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The family connections are strong in this year's Indy race, starting with the Andretti clan. John is the son of Aldo, twin brother of 1969 winner Mario. Marco is the son of Michael, who drove in 17 Indy 500s and owns Marco's car, and the grandson of Mario. A.J. Foyt IV is the grandson of the four-time winner here. Graham Rahal is the son of '86 winner Bobby, and Ed Carpenter is the stepson of Indy chief executive Tony George.

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For the second straight year, three women will start the race. Last year, Danica Patrick finished fourth, Sarah Fisher was 18th and Milka Duno was 31st. This year, Patrick will start fifth, Fisher 22nd and Duno 27th.

Patrick, asked whether her recent win in Japan had changed other drivers' perception of her, said, "I would say no. If I hadn't proved to them that I could drive by the time I won in Japan, winning in Japan wouldn't change a thing."

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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