Castroneves’ Nightmare Ends, Dream resumes
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Winning back-to-back Indianapolis 500s? Easy. Scaling 20-foot catch fences? Child’s play. Dancing in front of tens of millions of people on network television? Cake.
Sitting in a media center talking to a relatively small collection of media members and attempting to explain what the last six months have been like for him? That came off with neither cool alacrity nor fleet-footed finesse for Helio Castroneves Saturday afternoon.
It came off with sobs and tears and periods of silence as he attempted to pull himself, his thoughts and his life back together.
“It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare,” Castroneves said and then paused to fight the tears. “I’m sorry, everybody. Everybody knows that I’m a pretty emotional guy. And to go through this with my family, it was very difficult.”
What Castroneves went through was a trial for tax evasion. The IndyCar driver, his sister and his attorney all were slapped with several counts for that crime. They faced six years in jail each.
They also faced public humiliation as Castroneves was marched past cameras in handcuffs when he was arrested, and then had video clips of him in prison garb become must view items for snickering goofs on the internet.
During the federal trial, which was held in Miami and lasted a month and a half, Castroneves sat in a courtroom listening to attorneys accuse him of pretty despicable crimes and argue over his future and his life.
What could he do to forget all that after being found innocent by the Miami jury and set free on Friday?
His favorite thing in the whole world – Saturday morning, Castroneves zipped up the driving suit and got into an IndyCar to practice for Sunday’s Long Beach Grand Prix in California.
And six horrible months dissolved with one pull on the helmet strap.
“And, again, I just want to…I’m just so happy to be back to hearing words like I did coming in, take the slap, and things like that. And enough of ‘objection’ and ‘sustained’ and ‘overruled’ for me,” he said. “It was a little bit difficult to understand. But after seven weeks I want to forget about that; and, again, my life definitely is starting all over.”
As he settled down into the No. 3 Team Penske car which he drove to Indy 500 victories in 2001 and 2002, Castroneves issued a question to Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance.
“He asked me” Cindric said, “as we started up the engine and all the rest of it, he said, ‘Is this a dream?’ I said, ‘No, it’s reality. There’s a lot of people watching so don’t stall it.’ “
No way that was going to happen.
“The best place for me to fix and to heal this scar,” Castroneves, “it is here, and to see these fans and all of you guys.”
On the track in practice, Castroneves showed the effects of taking a long break from driving a race car. His driving was called “squirrelly” by one reporter at the track.
Castroneves didn’t dispute that description.
“Remember,” he said, “it’s been six months. But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. It might be a little rough in the beginning, but later on we have a lot of laps to make it right. And I’m not even worried about that right now.
“I just want to continue working with my guys, working with these two guys over here. I know Roger is going to try to do everything he can to continue winning the races. And I’m sure Cindric will do his best to beat these guys as well, so it will be fun.”
Sitting near Castroneves at Long Beach was team owner, Roger Penske. He, too, took some heat over the situation. People asked him why he would stand by a person accused, basically, of robbing the American people and why he would keep insisting that Castroneves’ ride would be waiting for him once the air cleared.
Faith in a person he knew was a good person, he said.
“As you know,” Penske said, “we’ve stayed together as a team for many months. And we talked about this when it started and obviously stayed in contact as he went through the ordeal. And I just have to say that I’m proud to see him be able to walk out and be able to get in the No. 3 car. It’s amazing what happens in your life, and certainly Helio has gone through a chapter I’m sure he wants to close this book, this chapter in the book.
“But to me it’s over. He’s back where he wants to be. He’s a great race car driver. He’s been a great ambassador for our team. I’ve said to many people, he doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. And to see him back here is just tremendous. And I appreciate everyone that’s written to us, his fans, my friends, the press that has supported us during this very, very tough time. And it’s behind us now. And hopefully we can move on.”