Commentary

Castroneves the original fence-climbing trail blazer

Helio Castroneves looks like Spider-Man when he scales fences after an IndyCar win. And copycat Tony Stewart after a Cup victory? Well, he looks more like Fred Flintstone, writes Bruce Martin.

Updated: August 31, 2007, 4:48 PM ET
By Bruce Martin | Special to ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The automotive industry of Detroit has been the heartbeat of many innovations in both passenger cars and auto racing.

Whether it's safety innovations with antilock brakes on the family car or electronic sensors that can monitor every function of a race car, Detroit has left its mark and enjoys its reputation at "Motor City."

But there's another innovation that began in Detroit:

The fence climb.

That's right, long before Tony Stewart could take credit for climbing the fence after a NASCAR victory, the fence climb was born in Detroit, courtesy of Helio Castroneves.

When the popular Brazilian driver won his first race in CART at the 2000 Detroit Grand Prix, emotion took over. It wasn't a premeditated act, it just happened.

It was also the moment Castroneves burst onto the scene. He knew that he had earned his ride at Team Penske because of unusual -- even tragic -- circumstances.

Castroneves was actually the third choice for the two driving positions on the team in 2000. After the once-mighty team had fallen upon hard times in the 1990s, owner Roger Penske was determined to return the team to its glory days.

First, he hired Tim Cindric as team president. Cindric was a key member of Bobby Rahal's CART team, and Penske realized it was time for some fresh thinking to take charge of the operation.

Penske and Cindric chose two drivers to lead the team back to prominence and introduced them the day before the 1999 CART season finale at California Speedway.

Gil de Ferran was chosen for car No. 6 and Greg Moore would drive car No. 3 beginning in 2000.

Tony Stewart
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesTony Stewart begins his version of the fence-climb after winning this year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Moore never got that chance -- he was killed the next day when his car sped across the grass off the apron to the second turn, hit a service road, and slammed, top side first, into an infield retaining wall.

Moore would die from serious head injuries, and it dealt a stunning setback to the team's plans.

Meantime, Castroneves was another young Brazilian driver toiling in relative obscurity for Hogan Racing. Times were so bad that team owner Carl Hogan had announced he was leaving the series at the end of the year because he was unable to find a sponsor.

Penske and Cindric chose Castroneves to take over the car that was originally going to Moore.

All those thoughts went through Castroneves' mind after he took the checkered flag to win the 2000 Detroit Grand Prix.

"I have to say, the way I started on the team, with Greg Moore's death and the end of my season in 1999 with Team Hogan folding, I lost a lot of opportunities," Castroneves said. "But then everything came in the right direction. It was really bright. I was getting used to the team, I was getting used to my teammate, Gil de Ferran, and I was learning a lot of things."

He was learning how to win, and by the time he got to Detroit that June, Castroneves was ready to take the checkered flag.

"I wanted to win as bad as anybody, and Juan Montoya was leading at the time and I was right behind him," Castroneves recalled. "I was really pushing and I was going to try everything I could because I wanted to win as bad as anybody. Juan pitted late and I was in the lead. I continued to push.

"It was the slowest five laps that I can remember when they were counting five. It took forever. I saw Max Papis coming from behind and I said, 'No Max, this is my race.' I remembered it was so quick, but it was so cool.

"When I was crossing the finish line, I could not believe it. I was unbuckling my belt and the car was still running. I was crying and screaming. I wanted to get out of the car and start jumping, like when someone scores a goal in soccer. I wanted to run. So I went straight to the finish line. I don't know why.

"I saw the crowd go crazy; I ran to them and climbed the fence. It was a crazy move, but it turned out to be very good."

A signature celebration was born with the Detroit skyline in the background. The fans loved it, the media loved it and even the stuffed shirts who ran the CART organization loved it.

"When I did it the first time, Bobby Rahal was the CEO of CART at that time and asked, 'What did you do?' I said, 'I'm sorry, it wasn't intentional.' He said, 'No, it was the best thing ever,'" Castroneves recalled. "Then the next year, I got fined for doing it because it needed to be at a spot where the TV cameras could get it. Joe Heitzler, the other CEO of CART, fined me but ripped up the check in front of me.

Big Race Weekend

This race weekend is one of the biggest of the year, with every major series except for Fomula One on the track. Here's what to watch, all times Eastern.

Friday

1 p.m. Busch Series practice -- SPEED
2:30 p.m. Nextel Cup practice -- SPEED
6 p.m. Nextel Cup qualifying -- SPEED
11 p.m. Busch Series qualifying -- SPEED

Saturday

2 p.m. NHRA qualifying -- ESPN2
5:30 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series -- SPEED
8 p.m. Nextel Cup practice -- SPEED
10 p.m. Busch Series race -- ESPN2

Sunday

7 a.m. Champ Car race -- ESPN Classic
2 p.m. NHRA qualifying -- ESPN2
3:30 p.m. IndyCar Series race -- ABC
8 p.m. Nextel Cup race -- ESPN

Monday

7 p.m. NHRA finals -- ESPN2

-- Staff and wire reports

"It was a controversy and the fans started asking for it. I thought if the fans ask for it, it's a great way to celebrate, so I'm going to do it."

After he climbed the fence for the first time in 2000, it didn't take long before he had a new nickname. And that nickname was actually given to him by a former ESPN host of "RPM2Nite."

"Right after the race we had a media day in Chicago and John Kernan of ESPN was the first to call me Spider-Man," Castroneves recalled. "I thought that was really cool. Then I saw a kid wearing a Spider-Man outfit. It was pretty cool. Then, fans started to tell me what section they were sitting in. I had no idea that I was going to do that again, but when I got to do it again, all of these things started to come around. I didn't win Portland, but at Laguna Seca I did it again. The fence was really small.

"After that, fans started looking for it more and more."

It wouldn't be long before another famous driver took Castroneves' celebration and tried to do it one better.

For those who witnessed Tony Stewart's dramatic win in the NASCAR Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in 2005, the lasting memory is Stewart lumbering up the fence on his way to the flag stand to take the checkered flag for what is still the signature victory of his racing career.

Stewart has turned his celebratory fence climb into a trademark, but in reality, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves holds the copyright.

"I was flattered that someone was copying me, and Tony Stewart was the first guy I saw doing that at Daytona when he won the Pepsi 400 in 2005," Castroneves said. "I got a lot of phone calls after that happened.

"I always wondered who would be the first person to do that. First of all, it's fun. It's a great way to express your happiness without jeopardizing anything for making a fool of yourself. And the fans really like it, so when Tony did it, I thought it was pretty cool."

When Castroneves and Team Penske returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 for the first time since they failed to make the race in 1995, they were not full-time competitors of the Indy Racing League and were viewed as outsiders by some.

After Castroneves won the Indy 500, an official ran to Castroneves' car on the front stretch to keep him from getting out and climbing the fence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"He said I would be disqualified for not going to Victory Lane but, honestly, I didn't care because I wanted to share the moment with my team," Castroneves recalled. "In fact, it was the first time the team shared the moment with me to climb the fence. Before that, it was just me. When I gave them the signal to wave them over, they understood and everybody started climbing the fence.

"It was awesome."

An Indianapolis Motor Speedway security guard told him a second time to get back in the car and go to Victory Lane, which Castroneves promptly did.

Later that night in the Coca-Cola 600, the race winner Jeff Burton's team also climbed the fence at Lowe's Motor Speedway, copying the move from the Indy 500 winner earlier in the day.

"That was awesome when I heard about that," Castroneves said. "When I heard that, it was like, 'Wow.' It's like when Alex Zanardi started doing the doughnuts. Now, everybody does the doughnuts after winning a race.

"I never took it the wrong way."

Stewart has talked about the fence climb with Castroneves in the past and the two kid each other about it.

"Helio says I copied him, which I guess I did," Stewart admitted. "He was the first one to climb the fence, period. I just took what he did and kept on climbing all the way to the top.

"I keep waiting for him to climb all the way to the top with as much experience as he has at climbing fences."

When Stewart climbed the fence for the first time, he didn't even realize what he was about to do.

"It was spontaneous, it was never preplanned," Stewart said. "I was going to get the flag and then I thought, I'll just go up and get it. I never stopped until I got to the top. Seeing the reaction from the crowd, I've never seen a reaction like that from a crowd before. It didn't matter what shirts they had on for which driver, it was something that was really big to them."

Stewart said it was that crowd reaction that convinced him to continue the fence climbing celebration.

There may be thousands of NASCAR fans who think Stewart created the fence climb but the driver knows it was really the two-time Indy 500 winner.

"I don't think that way, to be honest," Castroneves said. "NASCAR also thinks they are the only one racing right now. If they want to think that way, fine. But everybody knows who started the fence climb so I don't need to tell everyone I started it."

When Castroneves jumps out of his car after a victory, he leaps to the fence and climbs it like a well-trained gymnast.

When Stewart climbs out of his Chevrolet, he labors up the fence like a carpenter climbing a ladder.

Castroneves looks more like Spider-Man.

Stewart looks more like Fred Flintstone.

"If Tony were fit like maybe he was in the past, he would be even better," Castroneves said. "I know he has lost weight this year, but he is an incredible race car driver. The people on the other side of the fence see him and think, 'Man, I can do this one day, too. See, he doesn't need to be like those IndyCar drivers at 150 pounds.'"

Four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon admits the first time he saw Stewart climb the fence, after winning the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in 2005, he was astonished.

"I was like, 'Somebody get a net,'" Gordon said. "I was afraid he was going to fall. I'm glad he had his helmet on. But it was cool. It's something he has made his own and nobody can copy that.

"It was a little bit taken from Helio Castroneves but he's made it his own in NASCAR."

Castroneves says his victory celebration is safer than the backflip performed by Carl Edwards after he wins a NASCAR race.

"At least when I climb the fence," Castroneves said, "I have a helmet on."

Castroneves got to climb the fence at Detroit again in 2001 when he started on the pole and led all 72 laps to win the race. With his penchant for racing on street courses, don't be surprised to see him renew that tradition in Sunday's Detroit IndyCar Grand Prix at Belle Isle (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the series' first appearance in this event.

After all, Detroit is the birthplace of the fence climb.

"Many, many people have started to copy the same thing, but I remember seeing in the paper the next day 'Helio won in Motown,'" Castroneves said. "To me, to be in a place that is known for the big and huge names of the auto manufacturers, ... it was great, but also for the fence climb.

"It brings so many good memories I will never forget, and it tops everything that I achieve so far. Hopefully, I win again and that would be even more special to come back and finish the way I did in the past."

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.

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