Castroneves not always a happy man

September, 28, 2011
Helio CastronevesEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves is his usual happy self at most times, but he's been more unhappy lately.

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the immediate aftermath of the recent IZOD IndyCar Series race in Japan, Helio Castroneves was his usual happy-go-lucky self.

He'd overcome an off-road excursion at the first turn and drove through the field to a seventh-place finish. When I talked to him in the Twin Ring Motegi pit lane for his driver column that appears here on, he was smiling, happy to have salvaged a top-10 finish from a tough day.

Helio wasn't quite as sunny when my colleague Bruce Martin caught up with him on the way to Narita Airport a little while later. Castroneves had just been informed he was dropped to 22nd place in the final order after being judged guilty of passing in a local caution zone.

When Martin asked for a quote, Castroneves exploded with an unflattering portrayal of INDYCAR race director Brian Barnhart. He didn't hold back in a series of Twitter posts, saying: "It is sad to see one person being responsible for bringing down an entire series. Brian Banhart is inconsistent and even changes the rule book when is convenient for him, and his own personal interests. Making the famous @paultracy's words mine: Brian Barnhart is a circus clown! Very disappointed for finishing 7th and being put to 22nd. This is just ABSURD !!! Just expressing my feelings right now!"

INDYCAR announced Tuesday that expressing his feelings cost Castroneves a $30,000 fine. But I wonder if Helio might have handled the situation a bit more calmly if he had been able to express his feelings in the first place.

When we were working on his last column, Castroneves told me he wanted to send a message to INDYCAR about his frustration over Barnhart's on-track management of the series. He said he wanted it to be constructive criticism with a positive message.

Castroneves was delighted with the copy I sent him. "I love it, this is exactly what they need to hear me out!!!" was his e-mailed response.

But the columns go through an approval process with Penske Racing PR, and Helio wasn't pleased with the version that was posted.

"Man, what happened to our story?" was how he greeted me at Motegi.

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said the decision to soften Castroneves' ESPN column was his call. "You can blame me," he said. "It doesn't do any of us any good to trash INDYCAR."

Castroneves' offense occurred on the last lap of the Japanese race when he passed JR Hildebrand for seventh place. Drivers had been warned about the local yellow by radio.

Castroneves did not dispute making the pass in the restricted zone. His ire stemmed from being dropped to the last finisher on the lead lap rather than just being placed eighth behind Hildebrand.

Frustration about Barnhart's seemingly selective enforcement of a vague rulebook has been simmering within all of the drivers for quite some time and over the last three years Castroneves has been involved in several controversial decisions.

With his future at Team Penske in question for the first time in more than a decade, Castroneves is also under pressure to perform. He and Ryan Briscoe have both been consistently out-performed by Will Power over the last two years and the team may cut back to two cars in 2012.

His long history with the Penske organization and three Indianapolis 500 wins would make Castroneves the strong favorite to remain alongside Power. But many drivers begin to lose their skills in their late 30s, and Helio will turn 37 next May; Briscoe and Power are both 30.

His last win came exactly a year ago on the Twin Ring Motegi oval. This year he's notched a pair of second-place finishes -- both behind Power -- but only three other results of seventh place or better.

Castroneves obviously has a lot on his mind these days. He just needs to find a way to express it without getting edited, penalized or fined.



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