IndyCar’s Helio headache

Helio Castroneves’ departure from IndyCar might be the best solution for Team Penske but it has left the series with a massive marketing headache.

Not only is it losing one of its leading drivers – always capable of a win and one of the best drivers never to win the Astor Cup – but a modern legend of the sport. One that will be almost impossible to replace.

Helio Castroneves: IndyCar’s biggest marketing asset

Back in August when the rumors of Helio’s ‘forced’ departure to IMSA emerged, I noted that one of the big issues was the Brazilian’s position as IndyCar’s most marketable asset.

At a time when the series is starting to gain serious momentum, IndyCar still needs all of its biggest names along for the ride. And Castroneves remains the biggest.

Helio Castroneves Team Penske IndyCar
Castroneves remains the best known IndyCar driver despite his retirement from full-time open-wheel racing. (Image: IndyCar)

Helio is IndyCar’s best-known driver to the mainstream US public. Arguably the Brazilian’s only ‘flaw’ is that he is not American. Beyond that he is the perfect combination of race driver and marketing asset.

Charisma to burn, infectious enthusiasm and spontaneity

Castroneves has charisma to burn and all the charm of Hollywood – without the movie-mogul sleaze. Approachable and engaging always, fans, media and sponsors love what the 3-time Indy 500 winner brings to the sport.

Over the course of his IndyCar career, the Penske driver has retained that fiery Latin temperament South Americans are famous for. The flare comes out in passionate post-race interviews where we are left convinced he considers this latest win or podium to be his greatest achievement to date.

Helio Castroneves Team Penske IndyCar Iowa Corn 300 win
Helio Castroneves celebrates winning the 2017 Iowa Corn 300. (Image: Owens/IndyCar)

By contrast, that Latin temperament in drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya often emerges in the form of petty, bitter post-race comments and fights with fellow drivers.

IndyCar’s very own ‘spiderman’

And then we have the ‘spiderman’; Helio’s trademark post-race celebration. Often imitated but never bettered. You simply cannot manufacture that and indeed any drivers who have tried to replicate it have just looked like they are trying too hard.

Helio Castroneves Spiderman Dan Wheldon IndyCar
Castroneves celebrates victory in St Petersburg with his trademark ‘spiderman’ and salutes Dan Wheldon. (Image: IndyCar/LAT USA).

For IndyCar the sad truth is that with Castroneves gone, that spontaneity and infectious enthusiasm is lacking amongst the rest of the field.

Who fills the Castroneves-sized hole now?

The hope for IndyCar must be that with Helio’s massive personality heading to IMSA, other drivers can grow in to the gap. Undoubtedly for the continued growth of the series we need a few more larger-than-life characters to emerge.

James Hinchcliffe used Dancing with the Stars and his social media persona to boost his profile and ergo that of IndyCar. The continued presence of the Andretti and Rahal dynasties is important, as is the newly minted all-American hero/champion Newgarden. But a vacuum has been left behind.

Josef Newgarden IndyCar 2017 champion
2017 IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. (Image: IndyCar)

Newgarden, Alexander Rossi (as he continues to come out of his shell) and Hinchcliffe have the potential to become the big names and stars of the series. The former could very well become this generation’s Rick Mears in terms of on-track success. That couples with his good looks and savvy attitude to social media makes for a potent combination.

Helio’s IndyCar legacy

Whilst IndyCar has not reached the heady days of the early 1990s, Castroneves has certainly played a big part in where it finds itself today.

After all the wins, all the smiles and all the fence climbing, Helio’s greatest legacy in IndyCar is perhaps that he helped to save the series he so clearly loves.

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