Monday, July 27, 2009

Helio Castroneves in Conversation in Sonoma

Indianapolos 500 racing champion, Helio Castroneves, is back in circulation with a winning streak and his famous good-natured personality!

The 34-year-old Brazilian racing driver is on a media tour in the Bay Area and met fans for a relaxed question-and-answer session this morning.

Hangin' with Helio was a ticketed 20-minute question-and-answer session at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, half-an-hour's drive from the Golden Gate Bridge. His famous humour and personality bubbling through, Helio chatted in the sun with his back to the track.

Alongside him was Steve Page, President and General Manager of the raceway, who led the session with a few questions and comments before opening it to the audience.

Helio won his third Indianapolos 500 championship last month, two days after emerging in the clear of all charges in a tax evasion case.

'With everything you've been through in the last couple of years, it's just amazing, you have such a great warmth and such a great fan base,' said Steve. 'How meaningful is that?'

'I have to say I'm very honoured and blessed to have fans like that,' Helio said. Confessing to not being tech savvy, he had been set up on Spacebook and Twitter by his brother-in-law and was surprised by what he discovered.

'Once I start checking it out and see the message that everybody was giving guys, sometimes you don't realize that (a) small message just like "Hey, man, we're praying for you!" or "hey man, we're looking for you back in the race car," stuff like that, it was just awesome,' he said.

'For all those years of running out here and racing and winning and having fun, for one of the first times I saw you guys give me back something. Sometimes you forget, I'm a human guys kept me strong...and we're back winning, which is cool!'

Helio was filmed crying in the cockpit at the end of the Indy 500 race in May. Why had there been 'so much emotion,' he was asked. 'I was out on a boat on the delta crying my eyes out!' said his fan, Jan, from Stockton.

'Sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry!' said Helio. 'I just couldn't control my emotion either,' he said.

'As soon as I crossed the finishing line, my prayers were answered in that one,' he said. But he had been asking himself, 'Why did this happen to me? What did I do? I thought I was a good person.' On his victory lap 'somehow between me and God, we were having a private conversation, and I'm like, thank you....' he told his audience.

Also, seeing his family who are closely involved with him in his racing, and knowing what they had been through, was emotional, but 'trust me, it was tears of joy.'

Helio arrived at the raceway about a quarter of an hour late after an interview with KGO, the San Franciscan based radio station, and prior to that had travelled yesterday afternoon from Canada.

In the waiting time, a trivia quiz on Helio and the Infineon Raceway was held with a sprinkling of prizes. Grand prize was a ride in a two-seater racer before the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on August 23, which is the second part of the Hangin' with Helio event and a race in which Helio is the defending champion.

What's more exhausting, asked Steve as Helio arrived, the Indy 500 or a 24-hour media tour!

'Man, to be here, what a beautiful place,' the champion replied, settling down in front of an audience of about 100 enthusiastic fans.

'I thought you might recognize the spot!' said Steve, reminding him of last year's win and his signature victory fence climbing, for which he is nicknamed Spiderman.

'I just remember actually,' laughed Helio, 'I got to the point when I had somebody grab my butt!... I thought this is time to get out of here!'

That race that made Helio the 2008 champion of the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma had been memorable, Steve recalled. Helio had had a run of 29 races without a victory and a new car had had to be brought in at the last moment. The truck drivers were driving for so long, said Helio, paying tribute to them.

Steve then referred to the dust-up of Helio and Canadian racer, Paul Tracy, in an IndyCar race in Toronto two weeks ago. 'Anyone throwing ice-pucks at you?!'

'I was scared. First time I heard so many boos!' was the reply.

Helio defended himself lightheartedly. 'He's a very talent (ed) driver. If he sees a small hole that does not fit even a tyre, he will go there!' he said. 'And because I know that, I thought I gave him enough room...It's one of those situations, it just happens.'

To be on the safe side, returning to Edmonton this week, he wore an "I love Canada" tee-shirt. 'Peace and love!' he said.

Tongue-in-cheek, Steve pointed out that the new season starts on home territory in Brazil. 'He'd better wear a shirt like "I love Helio!" And "Brazil!"' said Helio.

Much as he is looking forward to racing in his own country, he also stressed how much he loves America and the IndyCar Series, and more than once said how fortunate he was to be able to do something that he loves.

Steve commented that he was struck by the 'incredible' number of different types of tracks that the drivers had to cope with in the IndyCar Series.

Helio agreed about the challenge the race presents. Converting a car for the different races takes 12 hours, he said, but the interesting thing is that the races give opportunity to different teams and drivers, and which is why the champion of the Series has to be good on all types of track, he said.

But the skills set and the different levels of concentration - 'dancing!' added Helio - the thing that's always impressed me is the level of sustained concentration, pressed Steve.

The races were 'very, very diffcult to predict,' explained Helio, as the car reacts differently and drivers are dealing with things like new tyres and lots of things happening at the same time. 'You can't start waving around! Hey, what you doing over there!!!'

How does he train for that?

'I mentalize,' he started to say, and then queried if that was the right word in English!

'Visualize?' tried Steve. The trial had given him new vocabularly, 'I learn a lot about the "objection sustained and overruled!"' Helio quipped.

'You've got to be prepared,' he said, returning to the subject. 'But at the same time you've got to understand the car, feel comfortable with the car.'

More of Helio in the next blog..and for a video by Chris...

Watch the YouTube hosted video

pics show: Helio; Steve Page and Helio; the audience beginning to gather

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