Helio Castroneves sat in his business office in Miami on Tuesday, sorting through the mundane, zero mph tasks of being a race car driver that once might have bored him. He'd knock out a few phone calls, endorse a few bills, think about packing for this weekend's IndyCar race in Kansas City, Kan. He was loving it. Just four days after being acquitted on federal tax evasion charges that could have sent him, sister/business manager Kati and his attorney, Alan Miller, to prison for six years, and two days following his return to Team Penske's No. 3 car after worrying that his career was over, the two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and a Dancing with the Stars champion was starting over. At age 33, he said, he is new again.
How nice is it to get back to everyday business?
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 was 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.
When did it sink in that these issues were behind you?
I guess when I was in the race car (the first practice at Long Beach), my first lap around the track. I mentioned to the guys, "Is this a dream?" and they were like, "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 like. Talking racing terms, really cool. I was so relieved.
As much as you appreciate being back, is it tough knowing you'll have a tremendous task getting back into championship contention having missed the season opener in St. Petersburg?
Honestly, the way I am thinking, I need to get back on the rhythm. Long Beach was great. We got a top 10 (he finished seventh) 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 am. The only thing I am changing now is probably more personal, (to) see little things different. I appreciate racing even more now, packing my bags, going to the airport, things like that is becoming much more fun.
What was waiting for a verdict like?
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. About (last) Thursday they found the first verdicts and we were wondering what this was going to be and where we were going to go. It was hard to see it still wasn't over yet, and when we got to Friday it was just playing with my emotions. It was very difficult to control it. I was very fatigued mentally and emotionally. It was hard to control.
How did you handle the stress?
On Jan. 12, I was 159 pounds and I am about 146 now. I lost weight although it doesn't look like it. I guess that's good for racing, isn't it?
Do you think your fame, greatly boosted by Dancing with the Stars, helped or stood to hurt you when you were on trial?
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.
Does coffee taste better, the sunset look more pretty these days?
Big time. People sometimes don't appreciate the small things. They should go out in their back yard and see the garden and the grass and the sky. Wow, I appreciate to be here. Appreciate your health. 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.