INDIANAPOLIS - Come Sunday afternoon, Helio Castroneves will have 32 people chasing him at more than 200 mph, but he thinks he can handle that.
Just over a month ago, the
IndyCar Series driver was looking at more than six years in a federal prison as he faced six charges of tax evasion and one count of conspiracy.
With his fate and his life in the hands of a Miami jury, Castroneves reworked his perspective on everything. He was acquitted on the tax charges and the jury deadlocked on the other count, freeing Castroneves to return to his high-profile career as a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, and 2007 Dancing with the Stars winner.
"Many times during the trial I was thinking about it," Castroneves said about the prospect of never racing again. "You know, unfortunately I'm a human being, there's not much I could do. I have to think about racing because that's what I love, and I was just wishing that I would be here."
The precarious legal situation forced Castroneves to take leave from his role as the top open-wheel driver for Team Penske, the dominant force in the IndyCar Series. He missed the first race of the 2009 season in St. Petersburg.
Then after being acquitted on a Friday in Florida, Castroneves made his way to California where he qualified eighth and finished seventh in the race at Long Beach on Sunday, April 19. At Kansas a week later, he started 22nd but finished second.
Castroneves, who won the Indy
500 in 2001 and again in 2002, earlier this month put himself on the pole for Sunday's 93rd running of the Indy 500.
He has his image on the Borg-Warner Trophy, where all the winners of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" are gathered, and he has all the fame and fortune he could ever have imagined when he left his native Brazil more than 15 years ago to race in America.
Nothing, however, prepared Castroneves for the gravity of what he faced in that court room.
"It definitely changed a little my perspective of life, you know, and I appreciate what I do," he said. "I realize even more - I knew what I loved was racing - but I realized even more that's my life, and just to be here, it's just a dream come true."
Castroneves, his sister and business manager Katiucia, and sports attorney Alan Miller had been charged with failing to pay taxes of more than $2.3 million on a variety of licensing and sponsorship deals Castroneves had been involved with between 1999-2004.
After the public humiliation of being charged with a federal crime, the lengthy build-up after the charges were filed, the six-week long trial, and the tortuous six days of jury deliberations, Castroneves said he found strength in his faith, and his hope that he would be able to return to this historic speedway, and the sport he loves.
"I was just wishing that I would be here. That was my wish, in those times," he said. "Just that I am sitting here, it just proves my faith, definitely. He did not let me down. He kept me saying this is where you belong."
Team owner Roger Penske said it was very gratifying to see Castroneves recover emotionally and quickly regain his competitive edge, and his racing form, and then put his car on the pole for the most important race of the year.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty special to see Helio on top, coming from his circumstances," Penske said about Castroneves claiming the Indy pole. "But he didn't get it because we said, OK, Helio you're going to get it today. He won it, and he earned it. I think it worked out fine."
Penske team president Tim Cindric, who works with Castroneves over the radio throughout each race, took a playful jab at Castroneves and what the legal minefield had taught the 34-year-old bachelor and 14-time winner on the IndyCar circuit.
"First of all, I'd like to say his English has gotten a lot better by hanging out with all those attorneys," Cindric said. "He's going on and on and actually sounds good. He used to only know about 50 words of English, but he's continued to move that along. Dancing with the Stars has taught him another 25, but they were a little different. Now he's got all these technical words."
Castroneves was appreciative of the support he received during his trial.
"It's just incredible, and once again, I have to thank Roger and Tim Cindric and everyone for believing in me and being behind me all the way," Castroneves said.
Contact Matt Markey at
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Come Sunday afternoon, Helio Castroneves will have 32 people chasing him at more than 200 mph, but he thinks he can handle that.