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Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Helio Castroneves extremely happy to be back behind wheel in IndyCar

Indianapolis 500

1 p.m. today, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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INDIANAPOLIS

When Helio Castroneves arrived this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he brought three weeks' worth of stuff. In seven previous trips to the Indianapolis 500 he, like most drivers, returned home at some point to refresh and recharge. Not this year. Coral Gables isn't home anymore, not after the worst winter and spring of his life. Home is the racetrack, and peace comes at 220 mph. When Castroneves starts from the pole for today's 93rd Indy 500, it might represent a full return to normalcy after an acquittal on April 17 on federal tax evasion charges (prosecutors dropped the final conspiracy charge Friday).

Throughout the ordeal he dreamed of racing again. Immediately after the trial — during which he was forced to sit out the opener in St. Petersburg — the Brazilian returned to IndyCar racing at Long Beach, Calif., then at Kansas Speedway in the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara-Honda.

But May at Indy has been most enjoyable of all, and not just because he's a two-time champion at the Brickyard and on the pole for the third time.

"I was always thinking about how I've got to be in Indianapolis," Castroneves said. "I had to think about racing because that's what I love, and I was just wishing that I would be here."

Now that he is, and gunning to become the ninth driver with three 500 wins, friends and Penske teammates swear he's savoring and enjoying every moment more than ever.

On the surface, that might be hard to see in Castroneves' perpetually smiling face. From winning the 500 in 2001 and 2002 (the only driver to win his first two starts on the hallowed 2.5-mile oval), to a dozen other IndyCar wins, and even a victory in a 2007 televised dance competition that brought him mainstream adoration, the picture of Castroneves has always been one of almost cartoonish happiness.

"What you guys see is him enjoying what he does, but he's changed a lot of his perspective on what life's all about, beyond race cars," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "He cherishes more kind of living life, if you believe he does it more than he did before. I've never seen anybody enjoy life more than he does."

Castroneves turned 34 on May 10, the day after winning the 500 pole, but he said it felt more like a first birthday.

"He may think he has a second chance to catch his breath, a second life," said Rick Rinaman, chief mechanic on the No. 3 car. "He was reborn. We're just happy to have him back. To replace Helio with all the excitement he brings to the team, I don't think you're going to find that in too many people out there."

When he gets a break in his racing schedule, Castroneves said he will seek a rebirth in his off-track life. His Coral Gables residence was more of a fortress for six months before and during the trial, where he sequestered himself away from the world and spent sleepless nights awaiting his legal fate.

Happiness in all corners of his life will mean moving.

"The scar's going to be there, you never forget, but I just don't want to remember every time I come home. I want to … whoosh," Castroneves said, making a flying indication with his hand. "It may be Miami, Miami Beach, St. Petersburg, I don't know. I want to be someplace else."

But not yet.

There's no place he would rather be today at a little past 1 p.m. than on the front row at Indianapolis, and maybe a few hours later with a jug of milk in Victory Lane. In the second act of a life, that would be an afternoon worth savoring.

Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Helio Castroneves extremely happy to be back behind wheel in IndyCar 05/23/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 7:43am]

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