* But young Brazilian driver came out on top by joining Hogan team.
Finding out first-hand what a big-bucks business professional auto racing is came as a blow to young Helio Castro-Neves.
In January, Castro-Neves was fired as the driver for Bettenhausen Motorsports. Not that he had endured a bad first season on the highly competitive Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit; in fact, Castro-Neves finished second to fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan for rookie-of-the-year honors.
Just 23 then, Castro-Neves obviously had plenty of cockpit skill and an enticing future. But what he didn't have was what team owner Tony Bettenhausen needed most: deep pockets.
Bettenhausen lost his primary sponsor, Alumax, midway through the 1998 season, plunging the team into financial despair. After Alumax pulled out, "we didn't do much testing," Castro-Neves said, "and when you don't test, you're ultimately going down, because everybody (else) is keeping pace."
Castro-Neves scored virtually all his points - he finished 17th in the standings - in the first half of the season, when the team was fully funded.
To keep operations going in 1999, Bettenhausen had to search for major financing. One way to accomplish that is to hire a driver with big money behind him: That's how rookie Shigeaki Hattori wound up in Bettenhausen's stable and Castro-Neves received a pink slip just a few weeks before CART's spring training sessions began.
"That was actually the worst time of my life," Castro-Neves acknowledged. But he didn't stay unemployed long: St. Louis trucking magnate Carl Hogan had split with driver J.J. Lehto, and he eagerly replaced him with Castro-Neves on his Hogan Racing squad.
"In one week, I didn't have any ride," Castro-Neves recalled, "and then all of a sudden at the end of the week, I had a ride with a great team."
Castro-Neves follows Finland's Lehto and Scotsman Dario Franchitti as drivers for Hogan, who began an independent racing operation in 1997. It's a good bet that Castro-Neves will be the first to last more than one season under the Hogan banner.
"Last year, I was very happy the way it was," Castro-Neves said. "I learned a lot with (Bettenhausen). And then came the opportunity to join Hogan Racing. They're great guys. You can see in their faces that they're hungry to win."
If things keep improving, Castro-Neves just might accommodate their appetite. He's led two of the five CART races preceding next Saturday's Motorola 300 at Gateway International Raceway, although he's collected just four points and is 22nd in the standings.
Castro-Neves steered his No. 9 car - Lola chassis, Mercedes engine, Firestone tires - to the front of the pack in the season-opener March 21 in Homestead, Fla. But an electrical problem knocked him out of the race just 12 laps from the finish, and he wound up 17th.
He parried with rookie sensation Juan Montoya for the lead during much of the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix on May 2 in Nazareth, Pa. But twice he relinquished the top spot to Montoya in the pits, and Castro-Neves finally was done in by a spin and later a wreck. He finished 21st.
A turbo problem eliminated him May 15 in the Rio 200 after just 32 laps. His best finish is ninth, on April 10 at the Firestone Firehawk 500 in Motegi, Japan.
Just as a golfer savors the good shots and dismisses the bad ones, Castro-Neves is bolstered by his two forays at the head of the field.
"I'm sure I'm ready (to win) . . . and I'm pretty sure that it's going to happen soon," he said. "So everybody prepare and hold onto their seats, because when it happens, everyone is going to have to jump very high."