SAINT PETERSBURG, Florida: One prominent word always accompanies the introduction of IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves.
Three times, he has won the Firestone Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg, which played out on Sunday (Monday in Manila) at the downtown 1.8-mile (2.88-kilometer), 14-turn course.
Three times, he has won the Indianapolis 500 and he hopes to contend again in May for the historic 100th running of the iconic event.
Then there’s the really big one, the moment that propelled him to a new stratosphere of recognition, the title that he never expected.
“Dancing with the Stars.”
“Yes, it really happened,’’ Castroneves said.
It was 2007. Castroneves, partnered with Julianne Hough, made it through the competition, beating celebrities such as Wayne Newton, Floyd Mayweather, Mark Cuban, Jane Seymour and Marie Osmond.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t remind me of it,’’ Castroneves said. “I don’t mind that. Not at all. I understand it. It crossed over and brought in a whole lot of new fans. What’s wrong with that?’’
Nothing at all, according to Castroneves’ fellow drivers.
“If you would’ve asked me which driver would be good at it, I would’ve said, hands-down, ‘Helio Castroneves,’ ” said IndyCar driver Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion.
“He has the personality for it, for sure. I think it’s positive to bring out the diversity of our sport. I’m not talking about the superspeedways and the short ovals. I mean the drivers, the personalities, the different countries, the people who are under those helmets. If you can attach that kind of personality to IndyCar — to fans who normally wouldn’t follow our sport — that’s a victory for all of us.’’
Castroneves, 40, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, always has been an outgoing and charismatic spokesman for his sport. That hasn’t changed.
“I enjoy being myself,’’ Castroneves said. “And I do have interests off the track. But acting? No, I don’t think I’d be good at that. I’d be terrible. I couldn’t memorize the script. Politics? Are you kidding? I don’t think so.
“That’s why the dancing was really good. I just had to smile and move. I enjoyed the entertainment of it. I trained, but it was a spontaneous moment. It would be like be on television, talking about racing, which I could do. I think if you love something, if you are passionate about it, it certainly comes through.’’
Castroneves said there’s no mistaking his passion for racing.
“The offseason seemed really long, so I am full of energy,’’ said Castroneves, who drives the No. 3 Chevrolet for Team Penske. “When you love what you do, that helps. It’s just like going to an office, only my office has a lot going on and we get paid very well, so it’s a fun way to make a living.
Whether it’s driving or dancing, Castroneves has enjoyed the ride.
“I still can’t believe he won as a dancer, not that he wasn’t deserving, but it’s hard to do,’’ IndyCar driver Will Power said. “I totally get that many people will remember him more for that than his racing.’’
Castroneves actually returned to the “Dancing with the Stars” series for its 15th season, partnering with Chelsie Hightower, but was voted off during the third week. If he’s ever asked back again, he said he believes he’s capable of another championship.
“It has clearly been win-win for my name and for my sport, so I would try again, yes,’’ Castroneves said. “We all have an obligation to put our sport in the best light and sell it to the fans. We have a great product and people need to know.”