CASTROMEVES already making plans to defend his title

Tuesday, May 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ This is one Indianapolis 500 champion who plans to defend his title.

``I definitely will,'' Helio Castroneves said Monday, punctuating his vow with a smile and a wink. ``Trust me.''

No reason to doubt this 26-year-old Brazilian, who took Roger Penske back to Victory Lane at Indy and may have started a new craze with his fence-dangling celebration right on the main straightaway.

He can make a more lasting impression at the Brickyard simply by returning, which the last two 500 winners failed to do.

Kenny Brack, who took the checkered flag in 1999, jumped from the Indy Racing League to Bobby Rahal's CART team and hasn't been back since. Last year's champion, Juan Montoya, moved to Formula One, so he was in Monaco on Sunday rather than Indy.

``There's no doubt I have a special feeling about this place,'' Castroneves said. ``I worked hard to achieve this.''

So did Penske, who made a triumphant return to the track he has dominated. After sitting out five years because of the CART-IRL feud, the Captain won as a car owner for a record 11th time _ with a 1-2 finish, no less.

Gil de Ferran, Castroneves' teammate and countryman, finished second as CART teams swept the top six places in an embarrassing blow to Tony George's IRL.

``We'll be back,'' said Penske, who erased memories of his last appearance in 1995, when Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi both failed to qualify.

Penske, the consummate businessman, left Indianapolis on Monday but kept tabs on his driver, who returned to the speedway for the usual picture-taking session in front of the winning car.

``He's not here, but he's here,'' Castroneves said. ``He's already called twice to make sure everything was under control.''

Penske didn't follow through on his promise to scale the 17-foot (5-meter)-high when no one was around.

``He was about to, but I think he had some drinks,'' joked Castroneves, who pulled off another rendition of his Spiderman routine Monday.

``I'll tell you what, I haven't had too much sleep,'' he said. ``I went to bed about 2 a.m. last night. I wanted to watch the race again.''

And what did he think of the performance after viewing it on television?

``That guy in the 68 car did a fantastic job,'' he said, beaming. ``We planned it very well _ passing the back markers, always keeping the distance between me and Gil to about 1.5 seconds. I showed I was a good listener.''

Castroneves also knows how to take advantage of an opportunity, even one that was rooted in tragedy.

Canadian Greg Moore signed with Team Penske for the 2000 season, but he was killed in the final race of 1999. So the car owner turned to Castroneves, who displayed promise during his first two seasons in CART despite racing with underfinanced teams.

Castroneves has won four CART races since joining Penske _ all on road courses _ and this year is second in the series standings behind Brack.

Understandably, Castroneves is intrigued by the possibility of racing in Formula One someday. Three of his countrymen, Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and the late Ayrton Senna, were champions on the globe-hopping circuit. Jacques Villenueve won an F1 title after his 1995 victory in the Indy 500, while Montoya seems destined to win a world driving championship before his career is done.

``Yes, I have always dreamed of being a Formula One driver,'' Castroneves admitted. ``But I'm not going to go to Formula One just to go. Villenueve did a good job with a first-class team. But I don't know anybody over there, to be honest. I have no contacts with those guys. My focus is 100 percent on my CART season.''

Penske said he wouldn't stand in the way if Castroneves gets a better offer.

``If he has a chance to drive with a first-class Formula One team, I would be the first guy to say go,'' the Captain said Sunday.

Not so fast. Castroneves still has some work to do at Indy.