Castroneves finds redemption in Indianapolis

Castroneves finds redemption in Indianapolis

Redemption is a lady of two faces: one side is absolution from the past, the other relief from damnation. For Helio Castroneves both sides of redemption was shown in Indianapolis on Sunday. From one perspective Castroneves put behind him the...

Redemption is a lady of two faces: one side is absolution from the past, the other relief from damnation. For Helio Castroneves both sides of redemption was shown in Indianapolis on Sunday. From one perspective Castroneves put behind him the highly publicized tax charges that threatened to place him within the walls and on the wrong side of the bars of a federal prison. From another he probably silenced for good the long-stewing talk of a controversial Indianapolis 500 victory in 2002, a disputed win over Canadian star Paul Tracy, as he etched his face on the Borg-Warner trophy for a stunning third time as the Indy 500 champion.

Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Chris Von Wieldt.

No one outside Castroneves' inner circle will ever know the full depths of the man's humiliation at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service as he was led into the federal courthouse, to tax court, in Miami last October, confused and shaken emotionally to the core.

The fearfulness was well-founded: not only was Castroneves' head on the block, but that of his father and his sister, and a long-time confidant who advised him on his financial matters. No doubt there were many tears of remorse, tears of pain and uncertainty if not abject horror, at losing everything he had and any means (spelled deportation) of earning it back.

Helio admitted as much on Monday when he said to a handful of listeners, "There were times when I could not control my emotions then. There were times yesterday (race day, May 24th) that I couldn't control them either, but it was in a different way."

Some celebrities wear two faces: One is the outgoing and personable face, the facade, seen by the public and adoring fans; the other a darker, harder-edged persona that bites the ones closest to it. With Castroneves, though, what you see is what you get. Always.

"Afterwards, there was so much going through my head. I still can't believe it," he said with the same abashed humility and reflection in his voice that fans of 'Dancing with the Stars' can attest to of how the 33 year-old can be impish and playful. "It was like a little movie going through my mind: to win and overcome all that happened."

Race winner Helio Castroneves celebrates.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.

How complex our human psyche, how flexible its means, that it can run the gamut of feelings from happy harlequin to crying clown so convincingly, on a mere turn of circumstance. Unsure of the present and downright fearful of the future, Castroneves did like many people do, and considered his plight in comparison to others.

"There were so many contrasts of emotions for me, it was like a rollercoaster ride," Castroneves continued. "My thoughts were of others who've had a rough time, people like Jennifer Capriati and Tiger (Woods) and Lance (Armstrong). I remembered when they had their rough moments and they came back stronger and wiser. They are some of the people who proved inspirational to me, kept me going when things were bad."

When the trial jury acquittal came in April, and the IRS dropped its remaining charges against Castroneves, the racer made a vow to carry on his career undaunted. "I put everything behind me at that point. I simply tried to focus on all of the good things. There was still lots of emotion," he said of his ordeal, "but that is who I am."

Ironically, the 2009 race was Paul Tracy's first return to the Brickyard since the yellow light caught him out seven years ago on the final lap of the world's biggest race. The incident led to a months-long legal battle that left him bitter and Castroneves a two-time winner. Tracy finished an uneven ninth in the race, complaining of handling problems with his car throughout the day. At forty years of age there aren't likely many more chances for him to claim the Memorial Day prize as the finishing touch to a magnificent open-wheel career.

"I have distinct memories of that day, too, "said Castroneves. "Though seven years have passed, I never thought I wouldn't win at Indy again. All I know is hard work, of racing in that cockpit, of creating an opportunity for the team to win again. Then to open the door and take it."

"No doubt this win becomes special to me, just as all of them are special. Thinking back to my rookie year and my first podium (in Milwaukee) was special. The back-to-back wins (2001 and 2002 in the Indianapolis 500) were very special. But this year, with everything that has happened in my life, and everyone who has helped me through it, this is a very, very special moment."

In the end it was Helio's day, Helio's year perhaps, but even that is too simplistic to explain this incredible story of personal and professional vindication. "I always make sure to say it was a team effort," he said as he considered both his good fortune and bad over the previous six months. "I dedicate this race to the fans. They kept me alive, and strong, through the dark times. I dedicate this win to all of them."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Paul Tracy