Let Helio Focus On His Future
After Helio Castroneves had clinched the pole position for the 2009 Indianapolis 500 on Saturday, he let his emotions get the best of him as he often does. Castroneves isn’t just playing to the camera; he is a genuinely emotional driver. The media is more than willing to push those buttons within Helio, to get him to break down on camera by just slightly hinting at the legal battle he recently emerged from.
One can only imagine the burden that has been lifted from Castroneves’s shoulder. If convicted, he faced several years in a federal prison followed by certain deportation; along with financial ruin and humiliation. In Helio’s eyes however, the worst fate was that his racing career would be over.
Racing is really all that Helio knows. It is his sole passion in life. He came up through the usual ranks; winning the Brazilian Karting Championship in 1989, driving the various ladder series, and finishing third for Paul Stewart Racing (son of Jackie) in the 1995 British Formula Three Championship. Prior to 1996, Castroneves’s main sponsor, Marlboro Latin America, offered him the choice of Formula 3000 or racing in America in Indy Lights. Helio opted for Indy Lights and Steve Horne’s Tasman team. There, he was teamed with childhood friend Tony Kanaan. In his second season at Tasman, Castroneves led the points for much of the 1997 season, but it was Kanaan that captured the championship.
Fellow Brazilian and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi had taken notice of Helio’s potential and recognized an opportunity to capitalize on the future star’s ability. He convinced Helio to sign an agreement allowing Fittipaldi to act as his manager in June of 1997. Both Castroneves and Kanaan moved up to the top level in CART in 1998. Kanaan continued with Tasman’s CART effort, while Helio was tabbed to fill the seat at Tony Bettenhausen’s team. Castroneves landed the Bettenhausen ride with the help of his new mentor, Fittipaldi. It was a decent rookie year for Helio, although Kanaan won the CART Rookie of the Year. With Fittipaldi’s maneuvering, Castroneves moved to Carl Hogan’s team for 1999, where he had a best finish of second in St. Louis.
The end of the 1999 season saw several twists of fate. Team Penske had suffered through a couple of very “un-Penske-like” seasons. By the end of the season, Roger Penske had released Al Unser, Jr, and signed promising drivers Gil de Ferran of Walker Racing and Greg Moore of Gerry Forsythe’s Team; for the 2000 season. Days before the season ending race at Fontana, Carl Hogan announced his team would cease operations. Helio Castroneves was suddenly in need of a ride. Not satisfied with the direction his career had taken, Castroneves fired Emerson Fittipaldi; creating a rift that would resurface in years to come.
Sadly, Greg Moore never drove for Team Penske. He was fatally injured in a crash during the 1999 season finale at Fontana. Within five days, a contract was hastily drawn up for the unemployed Castroneves to join Team Penske for the 2000 season. There he teamed with fellow countryman Gil de Ferran and they formed a friendship, which remains strong to this day.
Helio won three races for team Penske in 2000, the first being at Belle Isle in Detroit where, after taking the checkered-flag, he spontaneously got out of his car, ran across the track and climbed the nearest fence. The crowd went wild, as he had already become a fan favorite with his infectious smile and personality. They celebrated his first career victory with him, and fence climbing became his signature. This was where he earned the name “Spider-Man”. As with many things, fence climbing has since been imitated in NASCAR– but it began with Helio Castroneves.
Later in 2000, Fittipaldi sued Castroneves for breach of contract. The case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, where Fittipaldi lost. From the case proceedings, many of Castroneves’s financial dealings were disclosed.
The pairing of Castroneves and de Ferran produced two CART championships and three Indianapolis 500 victories, before de Ferran’s retirement at the end of 2003. Castroneves currently owns two of the Indy victories, but no championships. He has factored into most of the IndyCar championships, usually coming down to the final race, but has yet to come out on top
Fall of 2007 found Helio in a different form of competition. He was chosen to compete on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” which he won with partner Julianne Hough. I’m sure his dancing was excellent (not being a dance expert, I couldn’t say for certain); but it was probably his enthusiasm and genuine charm that won over the voting public.
In October 2008, the IRS announced several indictments against Castroneves for tax evasion, mostly stemming from items disclosed in the Fittipaldi suit and the hastily prepared 1999 contract. His trial began on March 2 of this year. It was a grueling trial, which took its toll on Helio as it lasted for seven weeks, causing him to miss the season opening race at St. Petersburg. Helio was finally acquitted on April 17th, the first day of practice for the next race at Long Beach. Although media members openly questioned the move, Helio flew to the track and was practicing by Saturday morning. Despite a few rough spots in qualifying, he managed a seventh place finish to gain valuable points for his late start to the season.
Predictably, no members of the media at Long Beach wanted to talk about his race, they all focused on his trial. As always, Castroneves was gracious in answering any and all questions. He was just happy to be there. But he also made it clear, more than once, that he would rather talk about the race than legal procedures. The press didn’t bite—they continued to hound him about the trial. peppering him with questions about his ordeal.
This Sunday will mark one month since Helio’s acquittal. Since then, he has scored a seventh place finish at Long Beach, a second place at Kansas and the pole at Indy. Yet, he is still asked and reminded about the legal troubles.
There could be no better way for Castroneves to put a cap on his nightmare, than to be drinking milk for a third time next Sunday. I’ll make it known right now that Helio is who I’m pulling for this year. I hope that 2009 sees Helio Castroneves become the first three-time winner since Rick Mears did it in 1988.
When he does, it will be dampened somewhat in Victory Lane, when Jack Arute (whom I like, by the way) feels compelled to play his obligatory “tell me about your emotions” card. It will happen and Helio will cry. I understand that it makes for great television — but after that, we need to let it drop. Helio has let it be known that he is ready to turn the page and move forward. He has earned that right and we should respect that. He is a racer at heart. That’s all he knows and loves. Turn the page and talk to him about something he loves.