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Helio Castroneves isn't just a standout of the IndyCar Series — he's an aficionado of fine beaches who took time out to rank some of the best in Tampa Bay.
By Dave Scheiber
Published March 31, 2007
Brazilian IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves stands on St. Pete Beach in Pass-a-Grille.
[Times photo: Edmund D. Fountain]
Helio Castroneves is most at home sitting in the driver's seat. But the Brazilian IndyCar star from the land of such sandy paradises as Copacabana and Ipanema also loves sitting on a good beach.
So on a breezy, cloudless afternoon this week, the winner of two Indianapolis 500s and last year's St. Petersburg Grand Prix willingly trades the cockpit of his open-wheel speed machine for the back seat of a Toyota SUV, ready to race around Pinellas County and rate the beaches.
Even without his red Team Penske firesuit, Castroneves exudes an international flair that makes him easy to spot as he arrives for our Tour de Shore road course. His black hair is brushed back stylishly and he sports a pair of new designer line Helio (pronounced Ellie-o) Castroneves shades to go with his white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves, beige cargo shorts and flip-flops.
When it comes to relaxing in the sun and surf, Castroneves is a world-class connoisseur, a Coral Gables resident who lives a short drive away from Miami's South Beach. Would he agree with the renowned sand man, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, who has labeled some of the Tampa Bay area's beaches as the best in the United States? Or would everything pale in comparison to the sizzling sandscapes of his home country?
"They call Rio de Janeiro the most beautiful city because the beaches are just incredible - you can't deny that," the Sao Paulo native says with a smile, setting the bar high as we head north on I-275 for a three-and-a-half-hour, whirlwind excursion to end by sunset.
First stop, Clearwater Beach. We have heard it will be jammed with spring breakers, perhaps creating a Carnivale atmosphere - with girls from Ipanema, or at least Indiana - that will appeal to our esteemed guest.
He is a man known for his engaging smile and playful sense of humor, but he takes his beaches seriously.
"The ones in Rio are so huge and amazing," Castroneves continues. "It's white sand as far as you can see. To the north, we have fantastic natural beaches with huge dunes. So there's no question that the beaches in Brazil rank right up there as the best in the world."
The caution flag has been waved early: This will be one tough guy to impress.
At the edge of downtown Clearwater, Castroneves gets his first glimpse of the shimmering water of the harbor below and the causeway to Clearwater Beach - rated by Leatherman, "The Beach Doctor" - as the No. 1 city beach on the Gulf Coast.
"Oh my God, look at this," he says, offering a preliminary thumbs up.
All that worry for nothing.
But the mission at hand must wait. Castroneves has barely had anything to eat since morning. It is time for a pit stop to refuel -- a grouper sandwich at Frenchy's Rockaway restaurant, a Clearwater Beach icon overlooking a wide stretch of white sand by the Gulf.
The grouper draws another big thumbs-up from Castroneves, who knows a little about the restaurant business himself -- having teamed with nine partners to bring the first Burger King to Brazil in 2004, followed by 13 others since then and 10 more planned this year.
Soon, the beach beckons and Castroneves walks barefoot toward the shoreline. "You know, this beach actually reminds me of beaches in Brazil," he says.
But where are the spring breakers? Only sporadic groups of sunbathers, mostly families, dot the sand. Granted, it is 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and this is the less-jammed northern end of Clearwater Beach. Yet there is no hot-hot-hot soundtrack filling the air. "I have to say, I'm a little disappointed that there aren't more pretty women," he remarks in mock solemnity. "The good news is I'm engaged to be married and so it's probably a good thing, but I still have to deduct points."
On the positive side, he likes the inviting greenish waves, similar to the color of the Brazilian beaches back home. And something else has caught his eye: the new condos springing up along the beach. Castroneves begins to picture himself living in one. "I'm serious, I could move to this area," he says.
As for his verdict of the beach?
"Awesome," he says. "The white sand is great. There's enough space for a lot of people. If it was crowded, people wouldn't be on top of each other. The only thing that is missing is more sights to see. But that's okay. I still like this beach very much."
Castroneves is told about the serene, natural beach a few miles to the north in Dunedin: Caladesi Island State Park, rated by Leatherman as No. 2 in the entire country in 2006. "Sounds very beautiful," Castroneves says.
But there is no time to see it. Clearwater Beach gets his P-1 Ranking "Position One," he explains. We return to the SUV. And with one of the greatest drivers in the world sitting in the back, wearing his 2001 diamond-studded Indy 500 title ring with a mini-checkered flag, we race the clock and fight rush-hour to the south beaches.
Fort de Soto Park, North Beach
Castroneves nods approvingly at the wooded stretch that greets him off the parking lot. "Very nice, very peaceful," he says.
Moments later, he walks past the sawgrass bending in the wind and enters the nearly empty beach. "Okay, this is it, I can build my house right here," he says of the beach deemed by Leatherman as the best in the U.S. in 2005. "This could be a beach in North Brazil," he says. "Unbelievable."
He notices the sand is darker, a little rougher. Advantage CB. Final judgment: "Beautiful beach. Beautiful view. Great place to come to relax. A good place for families to come with their kids."
Pass-a-Grille/St. Pete Beach
An orange-tinged sunset is under way at the northern tip of Pass-a-Grille, just south of the Don CeSar Beach Resort.
The wind has picked up but smatterings of beachgoers are waiting for sunset. He likes the look of the beach, the shops, motels and eateries across Gulf Boulevard - and several of the swanky homes steps away from the sand. The gears are turning again. "Wow, now that would be a great place to live," he says.
Finally, it is decision time. To be fair, Castroneves envisions what it would be like here on hot, sunny day. "This beach is great, perfect for the people who live around St. Petersburg," he says. But at the checkered flag, it's P-1, Clearwater Beach; P-2 Pass-a-grille/St. Pete Beach; and P-3 Fort De Soto.
"If you want to go someplace special you take the extra drive and go to Clearwater Beach," he says. "But you know what, all the beaches I saw today were fantastic. Every time I come here, I fall in love with this whole area."
The Brazilian Beach Doctor has spoken. Now, he can get back in the driver's seat for a different kind of street ride this weekend.