Even a championship-calibre driver like Helio Castroneves finds new things to learn every now and then, and that never been more true for the Penske Racing star with time ticking down toward the American Le Mans Series' Petit Le Mans marathon.

In the week in which he was named as an honoured guest at the 23rd Great Sports Legends dinner, the Brazilian geared up for his race at Road Atlanta, and his first in the ALMS since last year's Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. On that occasion, he co-drove one of Penske's two entries to a third-place finish in LMP2 with eventual class champions Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas.

Now, more than 18 months later, Castroneves finds himself back behind the wheel of a Porsche prototype, having been named to share one of three entries with IndyCar team-mate Ryan Briscoe and Porsche regular Patrick Long in the 4 October endurance classic.

"I definitely have learned a lot," Castroneves said of his test outing on Thursday, "Of course, it takes several laps to really become comfortable in the car and in the seat, plus we have things like power steering and carbon brakes, which are great. It just takes time to understand what the car needs in order to make it go fast. The good news is that I am getting some track time today as well as testing the weekend before the race to better learn both the car and the circuit.

"I'm really impressed with the track. I have to say that it's probably one of the best maintained that I have ever been to. Everything is very neat and clean. It is nice to come here for a test and see the lines on the track and the kerbing so clearly marked."

Castroneves is one of many big name drivers to have been signed up for the annual 1000-mile race, and will renew his rivalry with 2008 IRL champion Scott Dixon, as well as fellow Indianapolis 500 winners Gil de Ferran and Dario Franchitti, past and present IndyCar opponents like Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Scott Sharp.

"It will be a really good circuit for the fans to watch such an exciting race," Castroneves said, "It's great to see guys like Gil, Tony, Marco, Ryan and Dario here. I've raced with and against so many of these guys before, but this will be a new perspective.

"Sebring last year was a flat surface, but very bumpy - here the track is very smooth with so many elevation changes, so it will be physical. The neck is really the part that gets the most work with the G-forces. I did my first really long run today and I couldn't believe how much stress was on my neck. Of course there was no traffic either and that will add another dimension to this race."

With a little time to prepare for Petit, Castroneves will switch his immediate attention to being among nine athletes honoured at this weekend's 23rd Great Sports Legends dinner in New York.

"It's a tremendous honour to be included as an honouree at this year's dinner, as most legends are either considered when they are retired or dead," the two-time 500 joked, "I really feel honoured to be in that category and know how many incredible athletes have been in that position. I feel blessed to be one of those."

The dinner benefits the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, and more than $40 million has been raised for the non-profit organisation, which serves as the national fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world's largest, most comprehensive spinal cord injury research centre.

"Each year, we are honoured by the presence of the most elite athletes in sports," said founder Nick Buoniconti, the defensive captain of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins NFL team, "This year's group of honourees represent such a high calibre of sports, we are truly thrilled that they will be joining us for yet another spectacular event."

Among the other athletes recognised this year for their contributions to sport - and acknowledged for their commitment to high ethical standards, community, worthy causes and achievements as positive role models - will be former world number one tennis ace Andre Agassi, all-time NFL category leader Jerry Rice, NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, NBA basketball star Scottie Pippen, NY Yankees pitcher Rich 'Goose' Gossage, WBA lightweight boxing champion Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini, cornerman to 15 boxing world champions - Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and Carmen Basilio - Angelo Dundee, and professional volleyball player and pin-up Gabrielle Reece.


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