Castroneves free to focus on race
By eddie pells
INDIANAPOLIS — Last year, Helio Castroneves wasn't sure if he'd be at the Brickyard or headed for a jail cell come the final Sunday in May. This year, the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 has come with less baggage for IndyCar's most successful driver.
Instead of worrying about his freedom, the defending champion is thinking only about racing — car setup, pit strategy and how the speed-boosting "push-to-pass" button's introduction at Indy might affect his strategy.
And, of course, he might be scoping out the perfect place to climb the fence if he gets his fourth victory. A win tomorrow would put Castroneves in the elite company of Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and A.J. Foyt, the only other four-time winners in the history of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
"It's nice, because I can just focus a little bit more on the race," Castroneves said. "Last year, all I was thinking about was the joy of being here. I had doubts about whether I'd be racing at all."
His future went into flux when the feds indicted him on tax evasion charges that carried up to a six-year prison sentence. Remnants of the case lingered through most of May, and along with worrying about all the usual racing issues that come up at Indy, Spiderman came to the year's biggest race with the specter of possible jail time on his mind.
Not until two days before last year's race was Castroneves cleared of the final charges. On race day, he started from the pole and was his usual, focused self. He won the race, becoming only the ninth driver to kiss the bricks three times at racing's most hallowed track. When it was over, the tears flowed freely. "Thanks for giving me my life back," he said to team owner Roger Penske, who supported him through the ordeal.
"He's part of our family, part of our team," Penske said. "The situation, it was very unfortunate. I hope he'd expect us to stand by him. Whether it was Helio Castroneves or a crew member having the same situation, we'd do the same thing."
Castroneves described being on an emotional roller coaster as he remained on the sidelines, his fate undecided while his case wound through the legal system.
The 35-year-old Brazilian, who repeated this year with wins in last week's qualifying and yesterday's pit-crew contest, said memories of the fans at the Brickyard kept him going through the bad times.
"When I came back here, the wound was still open," he said. "It was not even a month after the whole trial. There was a big wound there. The fans kept me healing. That made a big difference."
If he wins tomorrow, he will join Foyt, Mears and Unser as the fourth driver to win four times at Indy. Say what you will about the current stature of the Indy 500, there is no more exclusive club in auto racing.
"For me, they're the gods of racing," Castroneves said. "They drove so many things. Right now, it's a dream come true just to be in this position."