Castroneves heads Indy 500 field

By Jim Peltz(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

INDIANAPOLIS -- As crew members shouted above the clang of hydraulic tools while working on his race car, Helio Castroneves walked into a makeshift cubicle in the garage, changed out of his red racing suit into black street clothes and then joked to a visitor, "Step into my office."

Ready humor is part of Castroneves' DNA, and the light moments have come even easier this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, because the Brazilian seems poised to become only the sixth driver in the track's 100-year history to win the Indianapolis 500 three times.

Castroneves will lead the 33-car field in Sunday's race from the pole position because he was the fastest qualifier at 224.864 mph.

But once seated in the cubicle, Castroneves, 34, bowed from the waist, stared at the floor and turned somber as fans outside the garage stood patiently for his autograph.

"The power of prayer works," he said. "I don't need to see to believe."

Castroneves talks a lot about faith and prayer these days, because he was charged last October with federal tax evasion and endured a six-week trial in Miami this spring.

But a jury acquitted him April 17 on the tax-evasion counts and was deadlocked on one conspiracy count that prosecutors dropped Friday.

Castroneves' sister and business manager, Katiucia Castroneves, and motor sports lawyer Alan Miller, who also were indicted for allegedly helping Castroneves evade $2.3 million in U.S. taxes, also were acquitted.

Now, Helio Castroneves is intent on winning more races to repay the fans who supported him during his ordeal.

"I did question why this has happened to me," he said. "Does this mean I have to be stronger, like when a bad thing happens and I have to come back stronger? I don't know.

"What I do see are the people around (me) -- friends, family, the fans. Those are the times that you realize who wants to make you happy, and that's what I realized even more."

And despite the emotional turmoil during his absence from the sport, Castroneves has returned to racing with barely missing a beat.

"It would be an amazing accomplishment" for him to win the Indy 500 a third time, said his team owner, Roger Penske. (Castroneves also won it in 2001 and 2002.)

"He has a very good chance to do it," Penske said. "He has experience, he's won here, he's got a good car. My only concern is (he'll) try too hard."

Castroneves finally flashed his trademark smile in the cubicle when told of Penske's "trying too hard" remark.

"That's the least (thing) I'll be worried about," Castroneves said. "I know the limits (of the car) too."

The tax case was agonizing for the always emotional Castroneves, who admittedly knew little about finances yet suddenly realized that the centerpiece of his life, racing, might be swept away.

"I always loved racing, but I didn't think that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," he said. "I didn't know the way I would feel (its absence). I always enjoyed the moments ... and today I'm enjoying everything."

Racing made Castroneves, along with Danica Patrick, a marquee driver in the IndyCar Series, and his ebullience and charm also made him one of the most popular figures in sports. His fame only swelled in late 2007 when he won the "Dancing with the Stars" television competition with partner Julianne Hough.

But after his indictment, Castroneves was all but isolated from the racing world and forced to turn inward.

"I have more faith than I had before," he said. "I never lost faith, but I believe things happen for a reason. I can't tell you why, because I'm not the one to say that."

In any case, his new lease on life gave him a better appreciation for even the mundane, such as traveling to a race. But it's the fans Castroneves mentions most.

"Today, I had a perfect example," he said, explaining that a fan named Heather "always writes something (on his website) and I met her today. And for me it's like, 'You don't know how much you helped me, sending great messages.

"They're grateful that I'm back racing," he said. "That for me you can't buy. I feel blessed for everything in my life."

After Castroneves' team won a pit-stop competition Friday, his chief mechanic Rick Rinaman was asked in the speedway's media center if there was anything different about Castroneves now.

Rinaman, unable to resist another joke about Castroneves' reputed tightness with a dollar, replied: "He bought us dinner last week. That doesn't happen very often."

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