‘Happiest day of his life': Helio’s 2009 Indy 500 victory an emotional release from eventful era
(Editor’s note: As Helio Castroneves attempts to make history May 29 as the first five-time Indy 500 winner, NBC Sports will review his four previous victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and examine how each race was a significant and unique milestone for both the driver, series or track -- and sometimes for all three. The series began with Roger Penske’s triumphant return to IMS and Castroneves bursting into the national consciousness for the first time on May 27, 2001. Part 2 was the controversial finish of the May 26, 2002 race, whose outcome fully was resolved five weeks after the checkered flag. Part 3 is about Castroneves’ memorable performance in the May 24, 2009 race that came barely a month after being acquitted on federal tax evasion charges)
INDIANAPOLIS – Cathartic might be the only way to describe Helio Castroneves’ third Indy 500 victory, which capped an extraordinary 18 months of extreme highs and lows.
It started with a “Dancing With The Stars” win in November 2007, which landed him on the covers of national magazines, a red-carpet reporter gig for Entertainment Tonight and the cell phone numbers of fellow celebrity contestants Wayne Newton, Mark Cuban and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
But almost a year later, life as one of the world’s most transcendent racing drivers came screeching to an abrupt halt when Castroneves was indicted (along with his sister and lawyer) Oct. 2, 2008 on six counts of federal tax evasion and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
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In addition to facing up to 35 years in prison, Castroneves also had all of his professional relationships completely severed while facing the charges.
“Oh my God, it was really, really hard not being racing,” he said in a 2009 interview with USA TODAY Sports. “Six months cut right away. It’s not like you’re planning or getting your mind ready that maybe I’m going to retire or do something else. It’s that’s it. Boom. For me, it was shocking.”
Team Penske president Tim Cindric said he went six months without talking to the driver.
“From the point at which he was accused, we had to totally disconnect,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “Couldn’t have any conversations with him. There were a couple of things we had to deal with various attorneys on getting them information. I had to be a neutral party in that and go through depositions. It was a really hard time.
“Saw this guy with the high of highs and then this whole tax evasion situation comes up. I had to go to Miami and sit on other side of table and answer all these questions about this guy who was like my little brother. He still to this day is one of my best friends. You’re sitting there going, ‘Man, if he’s guilty, it’s the worst possible outcome you can imagine.’ ”
Almost as quickly as Castroneves had everything yanked away, his life returned virtually to normal from the moment he was acquitted April 17, 2009 just as the first practice for the Grand Prix of Long Beach was ending with Will Power in Castroneves’ car (after the Australian also substituted in the season opener).
Castroneves was rushed from a courtroom in Miami to a Penske jet that flew him to Southern California. He was back in the car by Saturday morning in Long Beach. Castroneves crashed in qualifying but led three laps and finished seventh despite barely sitting in a cockpit for six months.
His May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went much smoother. Castroneves qualified on pole position for the third time, led a career-best 66 laps and on by 1.982 seconds over Dan Wheldon for a $3 million payday.
“It was probably the happiest day of his life and still is,” Cindric said. “To go from where he was, the bottom of the bottom, to win that race a third time, it was one of the coolest days I’ve ever seen. It was extraordinary between his family and his sister and (partner) Adriana, what that whole group had gone through in that period of time. It was amazing to watch.”
With the IndyCar Series a year into its unification and eliminating much of the annual strife that had clouded Indy’s annual narrative for a dozen years, IMS had opened its “Centennial Era” by recognizing the 100-year anniversary of its 1909 opening (with a motorcycle race).
“During the month, it had an extra ambiance around the race,” Cindric said. “It had a lot of traditions that Helio was starting to embrace. He understood by then how big Indy was.”
Some key moments and vignettes associated with Castroneves’ tumultuous year and a half:
THE RACE: Castroneves led the first seven laps before yielding the point to teammate Ryan Briscoe and Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. But after regaining first by passing Dixon in Turn 1 on Lap 142, Castroneves didn’t relinquish the lead again.
Resisting attempts to be directed to the Winners Circle, Castoneves stopped on the fronstretch for his familiar fence climb so he could salute fans who supported him “during this difficult time ... and never stopped sending great messages.”
The Brazilian needed several minutes to compose himself after the win. “When I was still on the victory lap, normally I cry,” he said. “No, actually, I scream to the guys and celebrate. And this time I have no words, I just let it go. It was a very special moment that last, the celebrating lap. ... I think my tears speak for everything.”
GONE DANCING: Castroneves’ profile had been raised significantly during his “Dancing With the Stars” run in the fall of 2007. While in Phoenix for a NASCAR test, Cindric attended a taping of the show.
“I was so impressed with his work ethic in this show and how well he was received by everyone on the set,” Cindric said. “He was up at 5 or 6 in the morning to do East Coast radio and then they do a dress rehearsal with a live band right after breakfast, followed by another walk-through. The real show is the third time. It’s a full day.
“Every person he interfaced with – costume, food, shoes – they couldn’t stop talking about him relative to everyone else. They had come to know the guy we all knew. He got perfect 10s that night, then did TV interviews, then we go out in L.A. The energy this guy had from 5 in the morning to midnight. I was amazed.”
The win propelled Castroneves to mainstreams acceptance in a way that he wasn’t after his first two Indy 500 wins, largely because his exposure was limited by government restrictions on tobacco sponsors.
“He’s always wanted to be in the spotlight, and he couldn’t do a lot of things because of Marlboro,” Cindric said. “He had this ‘Spider Man’ nickname (from climbing the fence after wins) that he couldn’t play to because it would be looked at as kids and cigarettes. He couldn’t do TV commercials.
“He was always frustrated with not becoming more mainstream, and ‘Dancing With The Stars’ gave him the ability to be mainstream. By that time, Team Penske no longer had Marlboro on the car.”
REPLACEMENT DRIVER: When it became apparent that a two-month trial would eliminate any chance of Castorneves being ready for the 2009 season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, the team began preparing contingency plans.
Roger Penske conducted interviews at his office in Detroit, and Will Power, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais and a few others were among the applicants.
“The one that stood out was Will’s willingness to accept any situation,” Cindric said. “He said, ‘I’d drive one day, one year, one race. Whatever.’ Some of these other guys had conditions. Will sold us on his flexibility to the whole situation and his respect for Helio’s situation.”
Power made his Penske debut by starting and finishing sixth, but Castroneves was there in spirit as the team put Castroneves’ helmet and gloves from his first win at Detroit on the rear wing of the No. 3 on the starting grid.
Penske would reward Power for his loyalty by adding a third car for the Indy 500 and four more races in 2009. Though his season was ended by a fractured back in a crash at Sonoma, Power won in Edmonton and returned in 2010. He has driven for Penske full time since, winning the 2014 championship and 2018 Indy 500.
LONG BEACH SCRAMBLE: With two minutes remaining in Friday practice on the streets of Long Beach, Cindric was handed a note by a Penske staffer that Castroneves had been cleared on all counts.
The team already had decided to field a third entry if Castroneves was exonerated in time,
“Will asked (on the radio), ‘Where’d we end up?’ in practice,” Cindric said. “I said, ‘You want the good news or bad news? We’re P1, but before you get in here, Helio has been found not guilty on all counts. The good news is you’re P1, the bad news is you’re going to have to go to a different car tomorrow.’
“Overnight, we switched him to another car and crew. We had a plane waiting in Miami for Helio and had his uniform and everything in it. He went straight from the courthouse to the airplane. He got out of jail and got his life back overnight.”
PACKING LIGHT: After being emotionally exhausted by the trial, Castroneves nearly began to cry while riding in an open convertible for Long Beach driver introductions.
“It was amazing how many people were cheering, ‘Welcome back’, and it didn’t matter if they were wearing a Ganassi, AGR or a Danica (Patrick) shirt,” he said in 20090. “It was something I’d never felt, and it was hard because those people were so sincere. I was like, ‘They’re going to make me cry again, and I can’t! I need to be ready.’
“By the last week (of the trial), I was very fatigued. I was weak and couldn’t control my emotions anymore. Racing is my therapy.”
Though he was racing that weekend just down the road from the many friends he’d made in Hollywood, Castroneves didn’t have attire suitable for social gatherings. Cindric said the driver slept in his firesuit, the only clothing he brought.
“I just wanted to wear that for the whole two days,” Castroneves said.