It's casino night at the Brickyard Crossing restaurant in Indianapolis, and Helio Castroneves leads a small entourage into a back room that's tricked out for the evening with a craps table, a poker table, a roulette wheel and a blackjack table. All the IndyCar drivers, their firesuits swapped for Armani and Dior, are on hand for a little pretend gambling and glad-handing with sponsors at this charity event two weeks before the Indianapolis 500, but it's Castroneves, in a black collared shirt and black pants, who draws a crowd. Cameras flash in his face, women rush to kiss him on the cheek, a gray-haired man tells him his wife is dying to dance with him. Eventually Castroneves glide-steps through the throng and settles at the blackjack table. With a flourish he throws down $10,000—sure, they're all fake casino-night bills, but Castroneves nails the high roller's gesture. "It's time," he tells the dealer "to get the party started."
With his girlfriend, Atlanta restaurateur Adriana Henao, at his side and another 20 people looking on, including drivers Marco Andretti, Ryan Briscoe and Sarah Fischer, Castroneves is dealt 17. Against everyone's shouted advice he calls for a hit. The dealer flips a four of clubs. Blackjack.
"Everyone listen," Castroneves yells, as he turns to the cheering crowd. "It's very, very important that you pay taxes on your winnings. If you don't, they can send you to jail. And that is no good. Trust me, I know."
As laughter erupts around him, it seems as if nothing has changed for the famously irrepressible Castroneves, for years the most popular and magnetic driver in the IndyCar series. But only a month ago, when a jury in Miami was deciding whether to convict him of tax evasion and send him to prison for up to 35 years, Castroneves seemed a long shot to be driving in this year's 500. Yet here he is—acquitted and by his own account the survivor of what, even for a race driver, was a harrowing ride—in Indianapolis for Sunday's race, gunning for the most significant win of his career. "I've been through a hurricane and survived," Castroneves says with rare seriousness, as he walks out of the restaurant. "I feel like the luckiest man alive."
Already, Castroneves has had a memorable month. On May 9—the day before his 34th birthday—he won his third Indy 500 pole, with a four-lap qualifying average speed of 224.864 mph. Not only is he a two-time winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the favorite this year, but his organization, Penske Racing, has won a record 14 Indy 500s. Castroneves and Briscoe, his teammate and primary challenger, have dominated the speed charts all month at the 2.5-mile oval. "If I could win this race, it would be my biggest victory," says Castroneves, a native of S√£o Paulo who will also have to fend off 2008 race winner and reigning series champion Scott Dixon, plus rising star Graham Rahal. "It would be a dream after waking up from a nightmare."
The nightmare began last Oct. 3, at 8:15 in the morning, when Castroneves and his sister and business manager, Kati, turned themselves in at the U.S. marshal's office in Miami to face federal tax-evasion charges. The two were handcuffed, shackled and led to separate jail cells. At the arraignment the government charged that Castroneves and his sister engaged in schemes to avoid paying taxes on $5,550,000 that the driver earned from racing and endorsements from 1999 through 2004. Castroneves's attorney Alan Miller was also indicted, accused of facilitating the schemes, which included diverting money to Seven Promotions, a Panamanian company held in the name of Castroneves's father, Helio Sr., and to Fintage Licensing, a company based in the Netherlands.
Defense lawyers maintained that the driver sought only to defer paying taxes on the earnings, which he had yet to collect. Also, Castroneves said that he knew nothing about U.S tax law and relied on advice from experts.
The day after the arraignment, all three defendants were released on bail and Helio flew from Miami to Atlanta, where he was to drive in a sports car race. Before the event he met with Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, in the team's motor coach. At one point during their conversation, a clip came on the television in the coach, of Castroneves in shackles and weeping into a handkerchief. "Hey, I'm on TV!" Castroneves yelled, trying to break the tension. "That's the bad movie I'm in."
Later that afternoon Castroneves provided another clip for the highlight shows: He went out and won the race. "It was obviously a calculated risk for us to stick with Helio," Cindric says. "But we all know that he doesn't have a bad bone in his body. And his sponsors stuck with him too. We hoped for the best result, but you never know what a jury is going to do."
On March 2 the trial began. Castroneves didn't want to be alone in his five-bedroom house in Coral Gables, Fla., so Kati; her husband, Eduardo; and their 10-month-old son, Eduardo Jr., who lived in Miami, moved in with him, and Helio's parents and grandmother flew in from Brazil to stay at his house during the trial. Many nights Castroneves found solace in playing with his nephew, crawling on the floor with him, laughing and enjoying the distraction.
But the strain on Castroneves, who lost 12 pounds from his 5'7", 145-pound frame during the trial, was obvious. He would come home after a day in court, avoid the television, retreat to his bedroom for hours—"He cried almost every night in there," says Kati—and surf the Internet. He had recently created a Facebook account, and he accepted every friend request (as many as 200 a day), most with encouraging messages attached. Real-life friends rallied round as well. NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon kept in constant touch. Wayne Newton left a song on his voice mail. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sent supportive text messages.
Cuban met Castroneves when they were contestants on Dancing with the Stars in 2007. Castroneves won the competition, which did more for his Q-rating than anything he's ever accomplished on the racetrack. As he likes to joke, grandmothers around the country fell in love with him. "Helio just makes everyone smile," says Deena Katz, the senior talent producer for the show. "Our audience embraces people who thoroughly enjoy themselves, and Helio obviously does. He's one of the best we've ever had."
Castroneves's showmanship marks every race win. After his first major victory, in the 2000 Detroit Grand Prix, he was so caught up in the moment that he forgot he was supposed to drive his car to pit road. Instead, he stopped along the front stretch to gather his thoughts. But when Castroneves saw the fans cheering wildly for him, he hopped out of his car and scrambled up the catch fence to be closer to them. Dubbed Spiderman as a result, Castroneves has made the climb after every one of his 20 IndyCar victories. It was such a hit that NASCAR's Tony Stewart started climbing fences, too, in 2005.
When Castroneves met the husky Stewart later that year, Stewart challenged him to a fence-climbing race. "Tony, relax man," Castroneves said, grinning. "Lose a little weight and then we'll have a battle to see who can climb the fastest." Quintessential Castroneves, using humor to disarm and befriend.
But not even Castroneves could laugh off his legal predicament. While the trial dragged on for six weeks, the IndyCar season started without him. The series opener in St. Petersburg on April 5 was the first scheduled ride he had missed since he was 11 years old. "In 1989 I broke my leg, and it was supposed to be in a cast for 30 days," Castroneves says. "But my dad and I sawed off the cast in the bathtub after 15 days because I had a race for a national championship. That's how much racing means to me."
The case went to the jury on April 12. The deliberations lasted six days. When the jury finally returned to the courtroom, Castroneves kept his eyes locked on the floor, afraid to look up, afraid to see if the body language of the jurors revealed their decision. The verdict: Helio and Kati were found not guilty on all six counts of tax evasion, and the jury was hung on one count of conspiracy; Miller was acquitted of all charges. Helio's lawyer, David Garvin, threw his arms around him, but Castroneves didn't move; the moment was too overwhelming. "It's over," Garvin told his client, who had tears streaming down his face. "It's time to go race."
A few hours later Castroneves and his family boarded a Penske jet to fly to Long Beach, Calif., which was hosting the second race of the IndyCar series this season. Cindric called before takeoff and asked Castroneves, Was there anything he wanted when Cindric met them at the Long Beach airport? "Bring my driver's suit," Castroneves said, "because I just might sleep in it tonight."
He restrained himself from that, but by five o'clock the next morning Castroneves had the firesuit on and was on the way to the Long Beach track. As if in a daze, he wandered through the empty garage area; when rival drivers, crew members, p.r. reps and reporters started to show up, Castroneves hugged nearly everyone he saw, each embrace lasting longer than the last. "Helio got me for a good 20-second hug," Danica Patrick says. "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone happier."
That afternoon Castroneves climbed into his race car for the first time in six months. As he accelerated out of pit lane, he couldn't stop looking at his steering wheel. "It felt too good to be true," he says. "It was like I was in a race car for the first time." He took it easy for three laps as he tried to find his rhythm. Then he cut loose. Though he had been back in the driver's seat for less than five minutes, his fourth lap nearly topped the speed chart. "The guy is gone for months, and in four laps he's running faster than me," Briscoe says. "That shows the kind of talent Helio has."
After starting the Long Beach race in the eighth position, Castroneves finished seventh. Said Castroneves afterward, "I'm back in the game." Indeed, a week later, at Kansas Speedway, he started in the rear of the field—penalized for driving below the white line during qualifying—but passed 27 cars to come in second.
Castroneves is holding court at Sushi on the Rocks, a restaurant in downtown Indianapolis two nights before his pole run. He's telling the story to several friends of how he won over Adriana. "We were at a party," he says, "and I say, 'Baby, baby, baby, if you don't kiss me now, you'll never find anyone better.'"
Adriana nearly spits out her sparkling water. "Oh, please," she says. "You had to beg me for years."
"O.K., the woman is always right," Castroneves says. "But I got you now."
Adriana sat in the courtroom through nearly every day of the trial—during the early sessions when celebrity witnesses such as Johnson and team owner Roger Penske drew crowds and paparazzi, and during the weeks of grinding testimony about tax law and accounting practice, when jurors nodded off—and more than anyone, she has seen how the ordeal changed Castroneves. "Part of Helio died, but a new part came alive," she says. "He won't be as trusting, but nothing will ever worry him as much anymore."
Castroneves has changed as a driver as well. He has always been ultrasmooth and precise behind the wheel, and still is, but since his return to racing he has been noticeably more aggressive, as if trying to make up for lost time on every lap. "Helio is more determined to win now because of what he's gone through," says Penske. "I'm actually a little worried that he's going to try too hard to win the 500, because that can cause problems."
"I've never been more committed to winning anything in my life than this year's 500," says Castroneves, leaning in close as the hubbub at the table continues around him. "If that means taking a chance, I'll do it. I'll be smart about it, but I promise you I'll do it."
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"If I could win this race, it would be my biggest victory," says Castroneves. "It would be a dream after waking up from a nightmare."
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT He missed the season opener, but a 224.864-mph qualifying run at Indy has Castroneves primed for a third win in the 500.
HELIOCENTRIC The ever-emotional Castroneves, a fan favorite at the track (above) or on the hoof, cried at his acquittal (below, with Kati).
BRIAN SPURLOCK (ON FENCE)
[See caption above]
JEFFREY M. BOAN/AP
[See caption above]