Helio Is Back To Being Helio – On Track and On Camera
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – Any list of elite athletes with reputations in need of rehabilitation typically runs from A to Z. That’s A-Rod to Carlos Zambrano…with John Daly, Michael Phelps and Michael Vick prat-falling in-between.
Similarly, Helio Castroneves faced the end of the innocence over the last six months, when federal charges of income tax evasion threatened to end the brilliant career of the Brazilian IndyCar Series star. But a storybook Month of May, capped by his third victory in the Indianapolis 500, has returned Castroneves to the headlines for all the right reasons. And if the perception of his innocence still does not match everyone’s reality, so be it.
Castroneves will not be offering either apologies or public relations strategies at every remaining stop on the 2009 schedule.
“I have to be honest. So far, I didn’t hear anything negative toward that direction,” said Castroneves, who along with sister Katiucia and business manager Alan Miller has been acquitted of all charges, including a lingering count of conspiracy. “I’ve been always very outspoken about it, very open as well, because unfortunately I don’t understand very much about those legal issues. I don’t think I need to do anything, to be honest. The result…I had a fair trial and I’m very happy that the system works. So afterwards, I need to do the rest (drive). And I think the PR was pretty well done winning the Indy 500. So for me, it’s all good.”
Visiting downtown Fort Worth as part of his Indy 500 champion’s tour, Castroneves acknowledged that having to defend himself from the charges has scarred him.
“You got to be yourself,” Castroneves said during a promotion touting the Bombardier Learjet 550k night race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6. “I learned my lesson. Certainly, it’s hard for me to say but it’s not the kind of publicity you want to have.
“It was very difficult to be in a situation, especially when you don’t understand the words and the type of language. Even if it would have been Portuguese, it’s a lot of things…it’s not (up) my alley, how you say. But after all that’s happening and after talking as a winner of the Indy 500, you can’t deny that the name is out there. So if some people watch “Dancing with the Stars” and notice the tax issues and now watch the Indy 500, you got a different audience for all types. But it’s not something that you want to be.”
TMS president Eddie Gossage, one of motorsports premier pitchmen, has tied two pre-race Bombardier promotions to Castroneves’ coattails this month. Gossage suggested that the negatives continue to tend to bounce off Helio, as if he were wearing Teflon.
“I think he’s good, really do,” said Gossage, who presented Castroneves with a white – as in good guy – Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat over lunch at Reata Rooftop Restaurant Patio. “I haven’t heard one single solitary soul say anything derogatory about him. Think about it. He was welcomed back by the fans, and that was really great.
“And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an athlete come off such a wrenching personal crisis and go into the biggest ‘game’ of the year and perform heads and tails above everybody else from start to finish. Pole, the pit stop competition and the race itself.
“Helio exudes this fun, happy-go-lucky outgoing personality. But inside, there’s a stone-cold killer in a race car. He’ll cut your throat, and that’s what champions have to do. Good for him. He’s a good man.”
Castroneves became the ninth driver to win at least three Indy 500s while presenting team-owner Roger Penske with his record 15th victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Castroneves and Team Penske also enjoyed a record winning payoff of $3,048,055. The list of four-time open-wheel winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway includes former Penske ace Rick Mears, Al Unser and Houstonian A.J. Foyt Jr. The race’s three-time winners include Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford, along with Louie Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose and Bobby Unser, who also drove for “The Captain.”
Castroneves has been solid on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval, too. In 10 starts here, Castroneves has two victories (fall 2004, June 2006) and six top-five finishes, including a runnerup result to Scott Dixon last year. Castroneves’ finishing average of 6.30 and 301 laps-led place him third among IndyCar drivers on those respective lists. Victory in the season’s first night race would tie him with former Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. as the only three-time series winners at TMS.
“Well, it’s always good to come back to a place where you succeed, not only once but twice,” said Castroneves, driver of the orange-and-white No. 3 Dallara/Honda. “One was daylight and one was nighttime. So the track is very challenging, because you have big banking (24 degrees) and sometimes if your car does not perform the way you want it, it’s a little bit tough for you to try to overcome. You’ve got to be really experienced to find the draft and use the other tools to win the race.”
Castroneves, 34, also is looking to become just the third driver to win the series’ two marquee events – the Indy 500 and Bombardier Learjet 550k – in the same season. Arie Luyendyk accomplished the feat in 1997, TMS’ inaugural season, and Dixon matched it last year with a sweep of the two races en route to the driver’s championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I have to thank my team and Roger Penske,” said Castroneves, who overcame a balky gearbox and radio problems at Indy with the help of crew chief Rick Rinaman. “Before I always knew him (Penske) as a boss and now knowing him as a friend, through this whole ordeal he was always backing me up. It makes it better to know that when this thing is over, I was going to have the race car. And that for me was big.”
Despite sitting out the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., while on-trial, Castroneves’ victory at IMS moved him from 10th to second in points, just five behind Dario Franchitti, Dixon’s Ganassi teammate. Round 5 of the season is Sunday afternoon at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis. Castroneves also is looking to keep intact a streak that since 2005 has seen the last four winners of the Indy 500 – Dan Wheldon, Hornish, Franchitti and Dixon – also win the series championship.
“Oh yeah…I thought about that and we’re sitting on the right spot,” said Castroneves, runnerup to Dixon by 17 points last year. “And we almost did it in 2002. Yes, I am thinking about that and hopefully that will be a great day. I guess it ain’t over. If it didn’t happen, it was for a reason. Who says it got to be easy to win a championship?” Castroneves finished 20 points behind Hornish for the title in 2002.
Castroneves, who now has 16 career series victories, clearly is enjoying the spotlight that comes with the spoils of victory, including the winner’s traditional tour of New York City for a series of media visits. Chief among them was an appearance on “Regis & Kelly” and a first-time visit to historic Radio City Music Hall. “The best part was taking my picture with the Rockettes,” Castroneves said. “I did the kick, I did the whole nine yards. Kick, left, right. They were very nice and they were giving me compliments about my dancing as well. It turned out to be a fantastic day for us.”
In Cowtown, Castroneves rode up for his interviews in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing the Indianapolis 500 Borg-Warner winner’s wreath and carrying his empty bottle of milk from the Victory Lane celebration. He spent the next two hours handling group and individual interviews with the confidence of a man completely comfortable in his skin.
“It makes me stronger,” Castroneves said of his legal issues. “My skin is definitely a little bit thicker right now. I realized that I love racing…even more. Certainly, you want to be on the top. That’s what drives me. Winning, that’s what drives me. I miss to be where I am right now. I’m so thankful for that. I never took it for granted, but today I even appreciate more. So again, all these things you try to ask and try to understand, I don’t think we can.”
The Bombardier Learjet 550k race week kicks off Thursday, June 4, with practice and qualifying for the WinStar World Casino 400 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event, as well as opening IndyCar Series practice for the Bombardier Learjet 550k.
IndyCar Series qualifying is scheduled for Friday, June 5, at 5:30 p.m., CT, followed by the WinStar World Casino 400 race at 8 p.m. The weekend concludes on Saturday, June 6, with the running of the Bombardier Learjet 550k at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are available for each day by calling the TMS ticket office at (817) 215-8500 or by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com