Originally created 05/08/02

Castroneves gets warm welcome in return to Indy



INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves was welcomed back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the champion he is.

The defending Indianapolis 500 winner, who celebrated his victory last year by climbing the fence in Spiderman fashion, was greeted by thousands of fans chanting his name.

"I always like that, especially at this place," Castroneves said. "It was very cool, very cool.

"Winning the Indy 500 didn't change my life, but obviously, I've felt a lot more publicity from the fans and the press."

His relationship with the fans is different, too.

He's a Brazilian who has quickly endeared himself to those in Indianapolis with his outgoing, emotional personality.

He prefers celebrating in front of them, which is why he climbed the outside fence after last year's race and why he still wears his gold and diamond Indy 500 victory ring when signing autographs outside his garage.

Yet Castroneves, a winner of six CART races and two IRL races, including the Copper World 200 in March, remains humble - even on a track where he beat teammate Gil de Ferran by more than 1.7 seconds last year.

"Absolutely, I have things to learn," he said. "The day that I stop learning, I'm not here, I'm not on this planet, I'm out of this world. This year, I need to learn more about patience and consistency."

Last year, he became the eighth rookie winner at Indy.

He also is the first Indy champ to defend his title since 1999 when Eddie Cheever returned, and a victory this year would put him among an even more rare group of back-to-back champions. Nobody has done that since Al Unser Sr. in 1970-71, and only three other drivers - Bill Vukovich, Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw - have achieved that feat.

But since winning the biggest race of his life, Castroneves has stayed much the same.

During a nearly 6-hour rain delay Monday, Castroneves, who is nicknamed Spiderman for his fence-climbing after a victory, had hoped to see the movie "Spiderman."

"He's not really any different," de Ferran said. "We've been working together for three years, and we've enjoyed a good relationship on and off the track."

While Castroneves adores the attention, he hasn't let it affect his success or his outlook.

Four races into his first Indy Racing League season, he is third in the point standings. He trails de Ferran by four points and leader Sam Hornish Jr. of Panther Racing by nine points.

Castroneves believes he is more familiar with the 2 1/2 -mile oval this year than last, but he is still a little nervous at the track.

"I know how to proceed about the month and how it works," he said. "To be honest, the butterflies are still going around inside me a little bit."

That's not detectable on the track, where Castroneves is driving confidently and quickly, as usual.

His fast lap of 227.408 mph Sunday came in not-so-ideal conditions - on a sunny, warm, windy day. But it was good enough for second fastest among the 39 drivers on the track.

His backup car was 12th-fastest at 255.201.

After finally getting on the track late Monday, Castroneves turned a lap of 226.716 mph, the fastest of the day.

What's made Castroneves feel at home here, though, is the reaction of the fans who have embraced him.

"Last year, we had a lot of trouble with people pronouncing my name," he said. "This year, we still have some of that, but at least they know who I am."

The defending champ.