Drivers typically don’t care for surprises in their race day routine, but this morning provided an undeniably sentimental moment as four previously missing racing helmets were returned to their owners. Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher had just emerged from the drivers’ meeting for The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Jaws dropped and eyes widened as the helmets were uncovered.
“A blast from the past,” Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay said of the Rahal Letterman Racing helmet he wore for his 2007 Verizon IndyCar Series debut, ironically at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “This makes me feel old. Thank you.”
The helmets, as well as ones belonging to Danica Patrick and the late Dan Wheldon, were stolen in 2008 from an INDYCAR fan experience trailer parked in Speedway, Ind. All six were recently returned to INDYCAR.
“Helmets are important to any driver,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s a piece of your career and a lot of memories come with it. This is a pretty important helmet. I kind of wrote it off. It’s nice to have it back.”
Fisher’s white helmet was also important – it was covered with fan signatures and worn in her series comeback race in 2006.
“It was my comeback helmet, my first race back after having driven some stock cars for Richard Childress,” said Fisher, who retired from racing in 2010 and is now the pace car driver at Verizon IndyCar Series events. “(Team owner) Dennis Reinbold put me back in an Indy car in 2006. It was such a quick turnaround; I didn’t have time to paint a helmet. My husband now, Andy (O’Gara), had this great idea to take my helmet to the autograph session and have the fans sign it so that it would kind of be painted.”
At the time of the theft, Fisher said, “I was devastated. It meant so much to me.”
Carpenter, now the series’ only owner/driver, wore his recovered helmet for Vision Racing in 2007.
“It’s nice we have all the INDYCAR tech stickers or otherwise I probably wouldn’t remember what year it was from anyway,” he said. “I had forgotten that it was stolen. I remember giving it to put on that trailer. It’s cool to have it back.”
Castroneves took his 2001 Team Penske helmet and gave it to an unsuspecting Vince Kremer, now vice president of operations at INDYCAR who was Bettenhausen Motorsports’ crew chief when Castroneves was an Indy car rookie in 1998.
“This one’s for you,” Castroneves said to Kremer, who was visibly stunned and emotional.
As their bond developed in 1998, Castroneves promised Kremer, “You’re going to get one of my helmets.” Each year since, Kremer enjoyed teasing the Brazilian with a reminder. Not anymore.
“He just totally shocked me and blew me away,” Kremer said.