Castroneves cleared of tax evasion in time for LBGP

Helio Castroneves can trade in his business suit for his driver's suit starting this weekend.

Helio Castroneves (Team Penske).
Photo by Chris Von Wieldt.

A jury in Miami, Florida acquitted the 33-year-old Brazilian on six of seven counts of tax evasion but was still hung on a count of conspiracy, according to an AP report.

The same verdict arrived for Castroneves' sister and business manager, Katiucia, while Helio Castroneves' lawyer Alan Miller was acquitted on the conspiracy count and three counts of tax evasion.

Castroneves has been charged with evading taxes on $5.5 million of earnings from 1999 through 2004. If convicted on all counts, Castroneves would have faced up to six years in prison.

Castroneves plans to be en route to Los Angeles and arrive at Long Beach in time for tomorrow's practice and qualifying sessions, and Team Penske is readying a third car to accommodate Will Power's services this weekend, serviced by the team's Rolex Series pit crew with John Erickson as Power's race strategist. The Australian is the defending champion of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Penske Racing president and Castroneves' race strategist Tim Cindric said that while details are still being determined, a plane will be dispatched from Detroit to pick up Castroneves from Miami when he is ready. He confirmed the two have not spoken by phone since the verdict, but exchanged text messages that were enthusiastic on both parties.

That said, Castroneves was not available for comment in today's just-concluded press conference that included Cindric, IRL Chief Operating Officer Brian Barnhart, and the two drivers who began the year for Penske, Power and St. Petersburg winner Ryan Briscoe.

Barnhart said accommodations will be made in terms of pit selection and practice allotment to allow for the 'contingency plans' that have now fallen into place.

"It's nice to have the whole Indy family back together," Barnhart said. "We had contingency plans in place not knowing how this would play out. The 12 car will be added at the pit entry end of the pit. Tires go with Will Power for the restrictions."

"One thing I will make a concession on, I will allow Helio to run both (practice) sessions," he added. "Will will be allowed to run a couple shakedown laps in the 12 car in the first session, and then both are in group 2 for practice."

The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion will return immediately to the seat he has occupied since 2000. Power was confirmed in the aforementioned No. 12 entry with sponsorship from Verizon Wireless for this weekend and the entire month of May at Indianapolis. At present, Team Penske has no plans to field Power in next week's race at Kansas, Cindric said.

"We had a contingency plan in place," Cindric said. "We did not want to be in a situation where we had we been sitting here this week without a contingency, and we could help reward Will and get Helio back in a car. I can't be more excited to see what happens."

Power handled the announcement with class, and admitted he knew the likelihood of stepping out of the cockpit if Castroneves was acquitted.

"I have been aware this could happen at any time," Power said. "You take it day-by-day and do the best job possible for the team. I was ready for it, so it's no big shock to me. That's the Penske way - they keep you well- informed and let you know what's coming."

Still, Power does get the chance to work with Team Penske for the entire month of May, in what was described as a similar situation to Briscoe's chance with the offshoot Luzco Dragon Racing entry in 2007.

"Really Indianapolis is as far as we have discussed for Will," Cindric said. "In Will's position, what the upside is for him personally is that if you're going to run Indy with us, this is an opportunity for him to work with the guys and get through some of the growing pains."

The last time Castroneves was cruising down Shoreline Drive, it was en route to a victory of his own in the 2001 CART event.

He arrived back at last year's Long Beach race fresh from Motegi, Japan having finished runner-up to Danica Patrick and said this was an event he was sincerely looking forward to competing in. Now, he will get that chance.

Castroneves' last IndyCar race action was at the non-points round in Surfers Paradise, Australia last October when he finished seventh. He won the final points round of the 2008 championship, edging Scott Dixon by a scant .0033 of a second at the Chicagoland Speedway, the second-closest finish in series history.