This just in: The guy is good

photo by John Thawley Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Indianapolis. Lost in the overheated publicity of his white-hot “Dancing With The Stars” appearances, and followed by the constantly grim drumbeat in the media about his tax evasion trial, a lot of people seemed to forget that Helio Castroneves is a pretty damn good racing driver. Becoming one of the few drivers in history to win at least three pole positions at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Castroneves solidified his reputation as one of the all-time greats at the Speedway with his run to the pole last Saturday afternoon when he averaged 224.864 mph (2 minutes, 40.0967 seconds for the four required laps) on the iconic 2.5-mile oval. Not only was it Castronves’ 27th pole in IndyCar Series competition, it was Roger Penske’s record 15th pole for the Indianapolis 500 (to go along with his record 14 wins as a car owner).

It’s no secret that some in this business are turned off by Castroneves’ exuberant personality, finding it grating and a bit less than genuine, but I for one have certainly never had a problem with it. That the guy gets up every day and is glad to be alive and thrilled to be doing what he gets to do should be commended, not questioned, especially in this era of robot drivers who have robot driver-speak programmed into them from the time they start racing go-karts.

Castroneves is supremely confident in himself and his abilities behind the wheel, and he loves to be able to do what he does - and at an extremely high level too - while driving for one of the most successful racing organizations in the entire history of the sport. But on top of that, he’s blindingly fast and a force to be reckoned with every time he starts a race.

That the trial Castroneves had to endure took its toll on him was easy to observe in his demeanor whenever he was asked about it, because it was the first time that any of us could see that it was the one thing that brought Helio’s exuberance for life and living to a screeching halt, draining the life right out of his face. He knew what was at stake and he was scared, and he wore it not just on his sleeve, but his normally expressive smile evaporated from view in an instant whenever the topic was brought up. The trial hit Castroneves to his core, and it threatened to take his very livelihood away, and he just couldn’t comprehend it or imagine life without racing. You can still see him shaking his head to himself every time he’s forced to relive it by the media.

So it was nice to see Castroneves where he belongs on Saturday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, contending for (and winning) another pole, and enjoying every single moment of it.

It’s okay to be jaded in this cynical world we live in, but it’s okay, too, to set that cynicism aside for a moment and enjoy and appreciate Helio Castroneves for who he is: A supremely talented racing driver who is at the very top of his craft, and someone who appreciates every day he’s given the opportunity to pursue his dream.

Don’t be surprised if Helio wins his third Indianapolis 500 in a little less than two weeks’ time too.

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