What It’s Like to Race the Indy 500 as an IMSA Regular
Friday, May 25, 2018

Everybody knows that this Sunday, Helio Castroneves will be going for his fourth Indianapolis 500 win.

If he’s successful, he’ll join racing legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers with four Indy 500 victories. Everybody also knows that he’ll be doing it – as he has every year since his victorious Indy 500 debut in 2001 – as a member of Team Penske.

The difference this year, though, is that Castroneves’ full-time job is co-driving the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi with Ricky Taylor, and that his IndyCar experience in 2018 is limited to the month of May at Indianapolis.

That means Castroneves is likely experiencing many of the same things that drivers like Ryan Briscoe and Townsend Bell have lived several times previously.

Briscoe, who now races the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT full-time alongside co-driver Richard Westbrook in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, has 10 career starts in the Indianapolis 500. He’s finished fifth twice in the race – including in 2012 when he started from the pole position – and has led a total of 31 laps in the Indy 500.

Bell shares the No. 64 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 with co-drivers Bill Sweedler and Frankie Montecalvo in the GT Daytona (GTD) class for the 2018 Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup events. He also provides color commentary of NBC Sports’ television broadcasts of IndyCar races and owns 10 career Indy 500 starts with a best result of fourth.

Back in 2007, Briscoe had almost an identical situation to the one Castroneves is living this year. Briscoe raced full time for Penske Racing in the IMSA-sanctioned American Le Mans Series (ALMS), co-driving the No. 7 Porsche RS Spyder with Sascha Maassen.

The similarities don’t end there. Just as Castroneves headed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway carrying the momentum of a victory in the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio on May 6, Briscoe won the ALMS race at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park the weekend before the 2007 Indianapolis 500.

“Much like Helio, I won my IMSA race leading into the Indy 500, which was a great feeling,” said Briscoe, who also raced Indy as a full-time IMSA driver in 2013. “It was great to go into Indy with momentum from IMSA.

“I think it all correlates. It’s all related. I feel like, if you can use momentum from another series moving into Indy, anything helps.”

For Bell, a majority of his Indy 500 experiences came as one-offs including the year he finished fourth in 2009. Perhaps the closest he came to winning was in 2014, when he crashed while battling in the lead pack with 10 laps to go.

That year, Bell raced the full WeatherTech Championship GTD season with Sweedler, finishing third in the full-season standings and winning the Patrón Endurance Cup. Had he been successful in the Indy 500, he would have become the first driver to win both the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year.

“Indy stands alone,” says Bell, who also led 12 laps at Indy in 2016, another year when he started the season in IMSA. “Even if you’re running the full championship, nobody’s driving for points there. Everybody’s driving for the Indy 500 win, so from that standpoint, I think the approach is pretty level set for most of the drivers, whether it’s a full-timer or a one-off driver.”

Bell described what he believes are the two biggest challenges Castroneves, or any other driver, faces when doing Indy as a one-off.

“The first is that, when you do it as a one-off, it means that every person, effectively, on your team that’s assigned to your car is also doing it as a one-off,” he says. “That can be your engineers, your mechanic, your pit crew, your spotters. Unless your team is a multi-car team and they’ve moved chess pieces around, which is unlikely and certainly always in my case not really possible, then your biggest challenge is figuring out how to limit the downside of everybody’s one-off reality.

“The other, I think, is preparing yourself for – I would call it the ‘primal intensity’ of that race, which is different than any other race that I’ve done. Indy is the ultimate prize in racing, in my opinion, to win the Indy 500, and also one of the most dangerous races in the world at the highest speeds.

“So that cocktail of factors creates an intensity and a focus that is really unique. You kind of have to streamline everything in your life in the six to eight weeks from early April, getting ready for testing, and just kind of preparing – physically and mentally – for what is a really high-stress, high-intensity, two-week period. It’s pretty powerful in that regard.”

Briscoe points to scheduling as the biggest challenge.

“I mean, the biggest thing is what it adds to your plate,” he says. “It’s just flat out. There’s a lot going on, it’s a big commitment and you just need to really be organized with it and focused and have a good support program behind you.”

In terms of support programs, Briscoe believes that Castroneves has the best possible situation with Team Penske. And he ought to know.

“When I did it with Penske back in 2007, I think the thing that really helped and made the transition so easy was that it was always the same team and working with a lot of the same people,” Briscoe says. “I think that’s what Helio is dealing with as well. It’s all familiar faces. He’s not jumping into a new team and unfamiliar faces and people. I think for him, it’s going to be the easiest transition anyone could dream of, doing both.”

Bell agrees to an extent.

“I would say on a relative basis, in that racing for Penske at the Indy 500, I’d like to think he’s had the unfair advantage for 15 years or however many,” Bell laughs. “However, relatively speaking, he has all the same challenges of a part-time program that’s been assembled for this reason. He hasn’t been competing in the series to start the year and there’s lots of little things.

“There might be small rule changes or a few new developments that are different where you competitors might have a leg up on you. But I would say, of all Indy 500 one-offs, Helio Castroneves back to Team Penske, it doesn’t get much easier than that.”

And it’s for that reason that Briscoe believes Castroneves ranks among the favorites to wear the winner’s wreath and drink the milk for the fourth time this Sunday.

“Helio, I think, would be one of the favorites this year,” he says. “He’s been out of IndyCar for, what? Four races? It’s not like he’s removed from IndyCar. I mean, he’s been doing IndyCar his whole life. I think he’s more getting used to IMSA than he is getting back used to IndyCar.

“I think right now, he’s back home where he’s most comfortable. He’s not a three-time Indy 500 champion by luck. He’s really good there. In the car that he’s in, you know, he’s in strong equipment. I think he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with come the end of the race, for sure.”