After "offseason" of work, time to race

I'm really looking forward to the start of the 2004 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series this weekend, and I'm definitely ready to take the green flag on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Toyota Indy 300.

It's been a long "offseason" and I can't wait to go racing. I think that the biggest misconception people have is that the offseason means that we actually have time off. Unfortunately, that's hardly the case; since the checkered flag dropped in Texas at the last race of the season in October, Marlboro Team Penske has been hard at work preparing for this year. We've spent countless hours developing the cars at the shop, on the track testing and in the office making sure we're 100 percent ready for our season to begin.

I'll be looking for my first championship this year, so we have to make sure we start strong and maintain our momentum. I finished second in 2002 and third in 2003, so hopefully the third time will be the charm. It's a long season with 16 races between now and the middle of October so focus will be important, but I know we've got a great team and have a good chance to win it all.

The most significant change for me this year has nothing to do with my car or the equipment, it's that I have a new teammate: Sam Hornish Jr. Over the past few months I've had a chance to get to know him, and I'm looking forward to working with him. Sam won the IndyCar title back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, so I know it'll be very helpful sharing information with him throughout the year. We've become fierce competitors over the past two years and always had good, clean racing, so it will be interesting to be on the same team now. There will be a lot of challenges working with someone new, but there are also a lot of rewards, too. Of course, I'll miss speaking Portuguese with my former teammate Gil de Ferran, but hey, at least I won't be able to get in as much trouble now, right?

Aside from all of the work we've been doing on the track and at the Penske Racing race shop in Reading, Pa., I've also been busy in my hometown of Miami. With the start of the season taking place right in my own back yard, I've gotten to do a lot of fun things to let the public know about the event.

Over the past few weeks, I've been doing a lot of media interviews and publicity appearances, where I've done everything from being a guest DJ on a Brazilian radio show to playing tennis with professional tennis players and local media.

Last Thursday, I was a guest on a couple of local morning radio shows, which I enjoyed, but I had to get up way too early in the morning! I also had the opportunity to coach local politicians and celebrities for the "Celebrity Karting Challenge" in Coral Gables. I'll tell you, it's tough to try and teach people how to drive Go-Karts if they've never done it, it's a true test of patience! After the Go-Kart event, I gave pace car rides to members of the media so they could see the new Homestead-Miami Speedway track configuration. They've increased the banking (20-degree variable banking), which should make for really close racing this weekend.

It's been busy, but I've really had fun the past couple of weeks preparing for the event here in Miami. It's special for me to be able to race here because this is one of the times that all of my friends and family are able to come and cheer me on; in fact, I'm going to have more than 100 guests this weekend.

I think it will be a great season, and I hope that Sunday will be the first of many victories for me in 2004. I can't wait to start climbing those fences!

Helio Castroneves drives for Marlboro Team Penske in the Indy Racing League. He is providing a diary to ESPN.com throughout the 2004 season. Castroneves' Web site can be found at www.heliocastroneves.com.br/.