Castroneves back on track

After beating tax evasion charges, IRL star Helio Castroneves savors return to Indy 500

The Associated PressMay 7, 2009 

— Helio Castroneves considers Indianapolis his second home.

He's come to the speedway twice as a defending champion, twice as the defending pole winner. He's come as a champion dancer and as the star of the most successful IndyCar team in history. He's scaled the catch fence and had fun with the fans.

But this year will be like none other for the 33-year-old Brazilian.

From the moment Castroneves pulled through that tunnel entrance and into the track's infield, he was on a brand new mission: To dazzle all those loyal supporters who helped him survive a six-week court battle and weeklong jury debate that nearly ruined his racing career, not to mention his life.

"I want to give back to the fans what they gave to me," he said. "I feel like I'm a better person, I realize what I love, and where I want to be is here, racing. It feels normal, but there's something a little better about it now."

Who could blame Castroneves for feeling that way?

He spent most of the past several months living life in a surreal world, where it seemed every move and every word was being monitored and picked apart by IRS officials and attorneys.

The bubbly personality that captivated fans vanished in the wake of the tax evasion allegations hanging over his head, and his trademark smile was replaced by carefully scripted statements and stern expressions. And he had to watch as Penske Racing, his team, hired Australian Will Power to drive his car in his absence.

Now, less than a month after the acquittal drew tears from the usually joyful Castroneves, life is getting back to normal.

He jumped back into the cockpit two days after his court victory and finished seventh in Long Beach, Calif. A week later, he went from 21st on the starting grid at Kansas to a second-place finish.

Now, he's back home in Indiana, driving on that familiar 2.5-mile oval that turned him into one of IndyCar's most popular drivers.

Life couldn't be better right now.

"You appreciate the little things more," Castroneves said. "I was so excited to be packing my bags just to come over here. You usually don't think about stuff like that. You think you have Sunday and Monday off, and I used to get away from the track, but I'm going to stay here with my guys for the whole month now."

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, who has been there for every twist and turn of Castroneves' career over the past nine years, can see the old Castroneves touch is returning.

He's not all the way back yet, Cindric said, but he is close.

"I think after May, it will feel like normal again," Cindric said. "I think over the last couple of weeks, he's started to get his life organized again and he's getting a little sense of normalcy back."

The first big sign could come Saturday, when pole qualifying begins at Indy.

The 11 fastest cars will qualify for the top 11 spots on the first of four-qualifying days at Indy. The next 11 spots will be filled Sunday, with the final 11 qualifying May 16. Cars not yet in the 33-car field will have a chance to bump the slowest cars out May 17.

Given Castroneves' history here, he should be one of the favorites.

He won the pole in 2003, his third Indy start, and again in 2007. He has qualified among the top eight each of the past six years, and has only started worse than 11th once in eight trips.

But Castroneves is usually even better on race day. He won as a rookie in 2001, and a year later became the first repeat winner since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971. Castroneves has finished among the top 10 seven times in eight career starts, and he's had five finishes in the top five.

So if anything is going to get Castroneves back to being his old self, it's Indy.

"They [the fans] sent me lots of messages through my Facebook page and through my Web site. There were probably thousands of them," he said. "I was not able to read all of them, but I read them constantly because they gave me a lot of strength. ... I had people saying 'I've never prayed before, but I'm praying for you now.' "

Castroneves figures there's only one good way to repay them - with a strong performance on May 24.

"The taste of winning this race would be awesome because of what I've been through," he said. "But it would be awesome to give something back to the fans, too. I've always thought very well of these fans, and after what I've been though, it's very important to me to give something back."

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