Helio Castroneves learned a lot about himself in almost two months on trial for federal income tax evasion. He learned the cost of not immersing himself in his personal business; he learned the price of fame (or was it the benefit?); and he learned about real fear.
Acquitted along with his sister and business manager, Kati, and attorney Alan Miller last week by a jury in Miami, Castroneves has already resumed his racing career. But the resumption of normal life is still in the distance. Plus, that same normal life from before isn't necessarily what the Brazilian wants.
You see, he also learned how much he appreciated the things he once took for granted. He also appreciated the countless text messages he tried to answer during the plane ride to the rest of his life, and the fact that Roger Penske always gets the news first.
Garrulous and happy as ever, Castroneves looked ahead, talked about rebuilding his career, and the joy of returning to racing. His new outlook on life plain to see, Castroneves appreciates just the chance to do what he loves.
Q: How settling is it to do simple things like get back into your office and tend to the daily business of being you?
A: You don't understand. For six months it was very difficult. You know how much I like to talk, but in those six months I had to let people talk for me. It's the hardest thing. I really say it was a nightmare. I can't believe I woke up and I am back again doing what I love the most -- what I've been doing since I was 11 years old. That for me, that's my life. To be back in a race car, it was a great relief.
Q: When did you finally realize this was over?
A: I guess when I was in the race car, my first lap around [Long Beach]. I mentioned to the guys, "Is this a dream?" and they [said], "No this is a reality." I was pushing the throttle warming the car up. For me, it was an awesome feeling. It was like putting on a glove that you always liked. Talking racing terms, [it was] really cool. I was so relieved. And then right after that I was like, "All right, braking points, downshift, upshift, brake bias." Stuff like that was coming back. Just fantastic.
Q: What was it like as the verdict was read?
A: Every morning, it was very difficult to get up, about 5:30 in the morning. Not getting any sleep because you always had the knot in the stomach, which, man, it was the worst feeling. About midday you start feeling a little bit better because no news is good news. Toward the end of the day, then it's "great, let's go back to another day." Counting the days was very, very difficult. I was very fatigued mentally and emotionally. It was hard to control. But my sister always kept me very strong. My family and my girlfriend kept me thinking it was going to be all right. Everyone was supportive.
Q: What was it like having team owner Roger Penske dispatch a plane to bring you to Long Beach for Sunday's race?
A: From Monday until the [actual reading of the verdict, Penske] told me there was a third car going to Long Beach. "You're going to be there." There was a lot of good optimistic expectation. I was like, "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do anymore. You guys want me there. I want to be there. I don't know what to do." It was outside of my control. As soon as the verdict came out, the first person I called was Roger. I was still shaking and I told him it was over and he said, "I heard. News comes fast. I heard. I'm already sending a plane to pick you up. Come back here and get in this No. 3 car." Besides being my boss, Roger and [president Tim] Cindric were tremendous through this whole trial. I can never forget what they did for me.
Q: Who was on the plane?
A: My nephew (Kati's nine-month-old son), brother-in-law, girlfriend, mom and dad and my sis. It was packed. We put like one set of clothes in and that's it. Let's go to Long Beach. It was about five hours and it did go fast. It was the first time we weren't sitting and counting the seconds pass by. It was great. I was just trying to respond to messages people were sending me and it was just a scene.
Q: Drivers being control freaks to borderline megalomaniacs and all, how hard was it to allow others -- lawyers -- to control your fate?
A: It was very difficult -- very, very difficult. It wasn't like in the Indy 500, where I am in control. In that situation I am not in control. I don't know what to think. They're looking at me and do I believe what they're saying? I don't know. It was just very difficult for me.
Q: You being so demonstrative, was it difficult to maintain a certain façade in court?
A: That was the hardest part. If I raise an eyebrow, or smile when somebody says something funny, you never know what they're going to think. For me it was difficult to control that. If I'm upset, I'm upset; if I'm happy, I'm happy. For me just to stay in one position and stay quiet and stay there...man, the only place I'm supposed to be sitting is in a race car and that's what I was thinking most of the time. I couldn't believe a part of my life could be gone. That's the only thing I was worried about, and obviously my sister with her son. Those are the worries I had. Today, I appreciate small things.
Q: Do you think your fame -- from racing or winning Dancing with the Stars -- ultimately helped or hurt in the entirety of this case?
A: I don't know. I just don't know which way it went. Certainly, what I heard, to be in this position, it wasn't because I was an ordinary person. That's what I understood, and that's what they told me. Now, the only thing I'm thinking is giving back what the fans gave me, which is a lot of prayers and a lot of love.
Q: You mentioned appreciating little things. Are you appreciating them more these days?
A: Big time. People sometimes don't appreciate the small things. They should go out in their backyard and see the garden and the grass and the sky. Wow, I appreciate to be here. Appreciate your health. There are so many things you never thought you'd think about. I always thought I was a good person, but I think I am a much better person now to have gone through this.
Q: I heard you hugged not only Tony Kanaan but Paul Tracy. Given your much-publicized issues with them, have you wiped every slate clean?
A: Honestly, I hugged everybody, fans, friends. To see the whole Indy community...Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, Kim Green, man, [Chip] Ganassi. It was so many people, mechanics, numerous people whose names I didn't even know. Drivers came by -- [Alex Tagliani], Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, [E.J.] Viso, Danica [Patrick], and obviously on the team, Will [Power] and Ryan [Briscoe]. Ryan was thrilled. During this process, especially after he won his race [the season-opener at St. Petersburg], he sent me a text saying, "You're next." It took me a while to understand.
It was very emotional. You could see fans with different shirts and hats, but they were all giving the same message: it was good I was back. To me, that said they were able to separate racing and the rivalry, and see who I am. I am so glad.
Q: So you and Kanaan are good again?
A: Him and I, we have our differences, but through the whole process it was good to see not only him, but [former teammate] Gil [de Ferran], a lot of guys I never thought would be around. It was incredible to see all the race community around me.
Q: Now what?
A: Right now I just want to organize. I didn't even know until Sunday what's the next race. I was just planning my life by, basically, hours, day-by-day. My season -- but basically my year -- started Saturday. I'm still organizing me agenda. I think it's going to take at least a month before things are normal.
Q: That first championship seems pretty far-fetched given you missed a race, so is just being back, competing for wins good enough?
A: Honestly, the way I am thinking I need to get back on the rhythm. Long Beach was great. We got a top 10 and now our goal is to finish a little bit better every race. Hey, why would I change now? If I have a chance to think about winning, I will. The only thing I am changing now is probably more personal: seeing little things different. I appreciate racing even more now, packing my bags, going to the airport, things like that are becoming much more fun.