Bruce Martin
Sunday May 10th, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- How's this for a Hollywood Script?

A famous athlete who also happens to be a pretty good dancer gets indicted on federal tax evasion charges. Faced with the prospect of going to prison and being deported from the United States, this athlete decides to go to trial rather than cut a deal with federal prosecutors, even though the Feds have a 90 percent conviction rate on tax evasion cases.

Against the odds, the athlete gains an acquittal, is allowed to return to his sport and less three weeks later, wins the pole for the 93rd Indianapolis 500.

Nah, no one would ever believe it. Hollywood filmmakers would turn down this script because no one would ever believe such an absurd story.

But, that is exactly what Helio Castroneves did Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Not only has he overcome adversity in his personal life, but his comeback to his sport has been nothing short of stunning.

It's a story that would bring some to tears, especially Castroneves. But it doesn't take much to get this emotional Brazilian to cry.

"It definitely changed my perspective of life, to appreciate what I do," Castroneves said after knocking Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe off the pole with a four-lap average of 224.864 miles per hour around the 2½-mile oval. "I realize even more that I love racing, but I realized even more that is my life.

"Just to be here, it's just a dream come true, and I appreciate every day knowing that I wake up in the morning, I know sometimes I'm annoying in the morning, but that's me: I enjoy life. Now I enjoy it even more.

"I have to say that what I learned from the trial probably my mind is much stronger now and my skin is a little bit thicker now, too."

Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner with victories in 2001 and 2002, had already qualified fast enough to start on the outside of the front row. But with the unique qualification format used for the Indy 500, drivers have three attempts at the pole so Castroneves withdrew his previous attempt at 223.949 mph to make another attempt with 1 hour, 41 minutes left until the end of qualifications.

His first lap was 225.405 miles per hour -- the fastest qualification lap of the day. That vaulted him on a four-lap run that included successive laps at 224.983 mph, 224.764 mph and 224.308 mph for a four-lap average of 224.308 mph.

Briscoe would make another attempt in the closing minutes but his four-lap average of 224.083 mph wasn't fast enough to regain the top spot on the scoring pylon that the Australian driver had held for most of the 6-hour qualifying session.

"If you're not up for this day, I'm not sure why you're here," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "It was a great opportunity for us. Our goal today was to try and sit on the pole and make sure all three cars you were in the first 11 in the first day. We accomplished that, and there's no better way to do it with my buddy here racing against the wind.

"It about made me cry today, but I didn't. Thank you and great job again, Helio."

Team owner Roger Penske is usually all business. Castroneves' pole is the 15th time a Penske-owned car has won the Indy 500 pole.

But considering where Castroneves has been since he was indicted on October 2, 2008, well this one is a little more special than the 14 previous Indy poles.

"To have Helio after his time off to come back and show everybody how good he really is, and it was a thrill for me and obviously for him and all the people who stood behind him over the last five or six months, I just want to personally congratulate him for a fantastic job," Penske said. "Obviously, we've got a competitive team because Ryan wanted to have a go, which was obviously a tough call. But Helio wanted to go and Ryan wanted to go, so we had to give each of them a chance, and we didn't want to lose those top two spots, but it worked out fantastic for the team."

Castroneves starts on the inside of the front row for the May 24 Indy 500. Briscoe will start in the middle of Row One with Dario Franchitti (224.010 mph) starting on the outside.

Second-year driver Graham Rahal qualified on the inside of the second row at 223.954 mph flanked by defending Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon's 223.867 mph and Tony Kanaan's 223.612 mph.

The third row consists of Mario Moraes (223.331 mph), Marco Andretti (223.114 mph) and the third driver from Team Penske, Will Power (223.028 mph).

Danica Patrick (222.882 mph) is in the inside of the fourth row with Alex Lloyd (222.622 mph) in the middle.

Only the top 11 positions were allowed to be filled on Saturday. Positions 12-22 will be filled when qualifications resume Sunday at noon. The rest of the 33 positions will be filled next Saturday with the final round of qualifications, known as Bump Day, on May 17.

But after Castroneves' penchant for drama, it's going to be a tough act to follow.

"Are you kidding, man? It's just incredible," Castroneves said. "Again, for me, I have to thank Roger and Tim Cindric for believing in me, to be behind me all the way. Like I said, those guys gave my life back just being in the race car and for me that means a lot. That's what I know to do since I was 11 years old, that's what I love, it's racing.

"This place is magic, man. I tell you, it's something that's just amazing."

What is most amazing for Castroneves is how that adversity seems to have fueled his passion into a raging inferno. Already a master of the moment, Castroneves appears to be an athlete that performs best under pressure.

But he is relishing every moment even more because he realizes that he has been given his life back, thanks to a 12-member jury in Miami.

"Being here it's already been very special," Castroneves said of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Many times during the trial I was thinking about it. You know, I'm a human being, there's not much I could do. I have to think about racing because that's what I love, and I was just wishing that I would be here. That was my wish, in those times during the trial.

"Just sitting here just to prove that my faith . . . He did not let me down. He kept me saying this is where you belong. And I have to thank again the team and my family and everybody to keep supporting me."

Castroneves has been able to make the most of his second-chance and in Cindric's mind, he has also been able to make the most of his second language.

"I'd like to say his English has gotten a lot better hanging out with all those attorneys," Cindric said. "He's going on and on and actually sounds good. He used to only know about 50 words of English, but he's continued to move that along.

"When I woke up this morning, I thought: 'You know what? We've got the guy to do this.' We just had to put it out for him, and he executed, for sure."

And when it comes to a Hollywood finish, who doesn't love a happy ending?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.