His enthusiasm for life and his racing triumphs—not to mention a little grooving on the dance floor—have garnered Helio Castroneves the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. The Brazilian-born Coral Gables resident won his first two Indianapolis 500 races in 2001 and 2002, becoming the first driver in 30 years to gain the victory two years in a row. (He’s also the only driver ever to win in his first two attempts.) And last year, Castroneves took home the checkered flag for the third time just weeks after being cleared of tax-evasion charges. This media favorite’s charming openness and captivating smile dazzle audiences at the racetrack just as much as when he was shaking his booty to become the fall 2007 champion of television’s Dancing With the Stars. And now this energetic fireball is looking forward to a new chapter with a baby on the way.
STEPHANIE SAYFIE AAGAARD: It has been an eventful year for you, with ups, downs, curves and winds—kind of like an Indy race!
HELIO CASTRONEVES: So far my life has been like that, and it’s not going to slow down either, especially now that I’m building a family. Oh, my God! The corners are going to be sharper and the speed is going to be faster.
It’s so fabulous to see how emotional you are when you win. But are you ever fearful when you get behind the wheel?
The good news is—and this is why I love what I do—when I am behind the wheel, I am in total control. If you ask me to go on a roller coaster or other things where I don’t have control, that’s my fear. I am like, “Stop—I don’t want to go.” But when I am at the steering wheel, that’s when I am in my comfort zone, my territory. I know what to do. I think well when I am in a racecar, because I have been doing this my entire life.
Is it hard to drive 55 on a regular highway?
If I’m not late, I have to follow the rules.
Are you more nervous before a race than you were during Dancing With the Stars?
I’m always a little nervous before a race, but with DWTS I was horrified. It was outside of my territory. I asked Julianne Hough what Plan B was if I forgot the dance, and she said, “There is no Plan B, Helio. Know what to do!” I was freaking out. Maybe since I had only watched the show once or twice before, it was good, because not knowing what to expect made me feel less panic. I was like, Let’s see what’s next, and all of a sudden what’s next became winning the season. Now wherever I go, if it’s a nightclub or a grandma’s party, everyone wants to dance with me. I am like, “I learned a routine, I don’t know what to do anymore.” I am going to carry that for the rest of my life. But hey, if nothing goes right in racing from now on, I can go dance on a cruise ship.
What gave you more of a buzz, winning a race or winning the coveted mirrorball trophy?
I certainly did not expect dancing to become so huge, and wow, I have become more recognized from the dancing than the racing. It was hard, I worked hard and we won. When you have 25 million people watching you every Monday and Tuesday, it’s very difficult to beat that.
How did you know you wanted to be a racecar driver?
I started when I was 10 years old. When I was 11, my dad put me in a state championship in Brazil. I got my first trophy, for fourth place. I still have that trophy. Then it was like, I have to win more trophies. Up until this day, I drive for trophies. I want to win always. When I was 13 or 14, I said to my mom, “I want to be a racecar driver.” I decided to stop eating red meat and drinking sodas, I started training, and I always focused on racing. My dad, my mom and my sister fully supported me.
You attribute a lot to your family. What makes that bond so close?
My mom—we called her the General—was strict, but in a good way. You need to put limits on your kids. I am going to learn now how to do it. But she always treated us equally. I was not favored because I was racing or my sister because of her dancing or her better scores in school. A family together can beat everything. Today that’s why I say a big part of me is my family.
Charity is very important to you. Have you always wanted to give back?
I always want to start a foundation that helps the whole world, but unfortunately politics make it so difficult. When it’s the right time, we will do it. Some people just give money, but money is not everything. I used to go to The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and spend time with the kids. They taught me more than I taught them. They could not understand me very well because of my accent, and it’s funny because the kids asked, “Why do you talk like that?” It was really nice. People should experience that once in a while, because sometimes you get lost in materialism, and you have to thank God for what you have.
What is your biggest thrill?
It’s gonna be my daughter, Mikaella. I am speaking ahead of time. But I am already nervous when I talk about it. It brings tears to my eyes. I can’t wait!
Steph Sez: What is your New Year’s resolution for 2010?
Helio Sez: My resolution? Oh, man, I will try to be a great dad!