Updated: Sunday, 24 May 2009, 10:16 AM EDT
Published : Sunday, 24 May 2009, 10:16 AM EDT
SPEEDWAY (WISH) - INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves slammed the brakes of his red-and-white race car on pit road, climbed onto the sidepod and thrust both fists in the air. The crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway roared.
"We love you, Helio!" a woman screamed.
What a month it's been for the star driver-slash-dance champion-slash-fence climber — and it just keeps getting better.
In the space of a few hours Friday, Castroneves learned the remaining tax evasion charge against him had been dropped by the federal government, then he posted the fastest speed in the final practice for the Indy 500, then he won a pit-stop competition with the help of his Penske Racing crew.
All that good news came on the heels of Castroneves capturing the pole for Sunday's race, making him one of the favorites to win "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing" for a third time, a victory that would leave him trailing only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears — the gold standard at the ol' Brickyard.
"This month just keeps getting better and better," said Castroneves, struggling to hold back tears. "This is the last page in my book."
Well, not quite, but he's already got quite a story.
Castroneves was hauled off to court in shackles when the federal government accused him of hiding millions of dollars in an offshore company to avoid paying taxes. A guilty verdict could have sent him to prison for up to six years and might have ended the career of one of IndyCar's most popular drivers.
But a Miami jury acquitted him of most charges April 17. That very same day, he hopped on a plane sent by team owner Roger Penske, flew across the country and jumped back into the car Penske had promised to hold for him.
Two days after the verdict, Castroneves finished seventh in a race on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. He followed up with a runner-up showing on the high-speed oval in Kansas City. Now, he's determined to add another Indy victory to his back-to-back wins in 2001 and 2002.
He no longer has to worry about that lone conspiracy charge the jury couldn't agree on. As expected, federal prosecutors decided to drop what was left of their case against the 34-year-old Castroneves.
"You're thinking it's going to happen, but it takes a little while," he said. "Then it happens, and you're still like, 'Is this for real?' Maybe tonight, or maybe after the race, I really don't know if it's going to sink in or not. But right now, this is just the best month of my life."
Castroneves' sister Katiucia — who also was charged in the case and received the same verdict as her little brother — delivered the news to him just before he went out for the traditional "Carb Day" practice, when the drivers get one final hour on the historic 2.5-mile oval to set up their cars for race day.
Their father came along, too. It was brief but exuberant celebration, an entire family feeling as though a burden had been lifted. Castroneves hurried off to tell his team before heading to the track to post a faster lap than anyone else, nearly 224 mph.
"This is my family's win," he said. "My life is back."
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta of Miami declined comment beyond his office's terse one-paragraph dismissal order that was signed by U.S. District Judge Donald Graham, ending the criminal case.
The Castroneves' lawyers, Roy Black and Howard Srebnick, said it would have been illogical to try the siblings again on a conspiracy charge when they were found innocent of the underlying tax evasion counts. Black also made a reference to Helio's nickname "Spiderman," which comes from his practice of scaling racetrack fences after his victories.
"The jury finds him not guilty, then he wins the pole position at Indy, and now the government drops the case completely," Black said. "All he has to do now is win the race and climb the fence."
Castroneves said he's got his climbing shoes on.
"Absolutely," he said with that gleaming smile of his. "Why change?"
He has changed, of course, and everyone around him believes it's for the better. Those on Castroneves' team couldn't resist poking a little fun at him after the pit-stop event.
"He bought us all dinner last week," said chief mechanic Rick Rinaman.
"Yeah, that was a first," quipped Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "We always knew that he was cheap, but he was not criminal in our minds."
On a more serious note, Cindric revealed another change in the fun-loving driver, who vaulted to even greater worldwide fame by winning TV's "Dancing With The Stars" competition in 2007. He led a charmed life, but the tax case threatened to ruin it all.
"I don't know if maturity is the right word," Cindric said, "but he spent his life a little sheltered from what the real world was all about. Not that you ever wanted him to go through that, but he saw a real tough part of the world there for a little while, and he came back a lot stronger."
Helio and Katiucia Castroneves, along with their Michigan-based attorney Alan Miller, were accused by the Internal Revenue Service of plotting to evade some $2.3 million in taxes using a Panamanian shell corporation and supposedly crooked dealings with a former Castroneves sponsor, the Brazilian firm Coimex.
Castroneves' lawyers contended all along that the Coimex deal was legitimate and that he simply set up a deferred income account in the Netherlands for $5 million he was paid by Penske Racing under a contract signed in 1999. When that account comes due, Black said, Castroneves will pay his U.S. taxes as he intended all along.
Miller was acquitted of all charges at the trial.
Castroneves remains one of the most popular drivers on the IndyCar circuit, and he came close to tearing up again when he talked about all the support he received during his trial. The big crowd at Indy cheered loudly when he defeated Marco Andretti in the final of the pit competition, rolling into the pits, getting all four tires changed and pulling away in a record time of 7.962 seconds.
Later, as Castroneves walked along a second-floor balcony, the fans below cheered and held up three fingers — his car number.
Fellow driver Tony Kanaan, a close friend since their childhood in Brazil, said Castroneves is more upbeat and positive than he ever was, but his priorities are in order.
"He was reborn," Kanaan said. "When he has a bad day at the racetrack, he will never complain about it anymore."
Or anything else, for that matter.
"I appreciate things I normally wouldn't," Castroneves said. "I used to get upset when my flight was delayed. Now, I'm happy. I'm just happy to have a chance to take a plane anywhere.
"I do feel like I'm a better person."
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