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IRL star Helio Castroneves is fueled by a new adoring audience on the dance circuit.
Published Feb. 4, 2008

A black curtain splits and the troupe spills forth into the dank gray innards of the arena. The final throes of rapt applause crescendo behind the bejeweled cabaret, still heaving the final breaths of exertion and exhilaration.

Last among the players, with pop singers Joey Fatone and Lance Bass, engaged in a laugh with Wayne Newton, comes the diminutive Brazilian in the garish canary zoot suit. Helio Castroneves has twice won the Indianapolis 500 and immersed himself in the business of becoming a race car driver for most of his 32 years.

But stage right and heading toward the dressing rooms this night at the St. Pete Times Forum, moments after a touring Dancing With the Stars show floored nearly 9,000 adoring fans, he was clearly in his element. The ever-present grin was a little wider.

Castroneves has climbed catch fences in his customary victory celebration, absorbed the adulation of hundreds of thousands, but dancing has provided something more personal. Never before has he seen the way peoples' eyes widen when he captures their imagination. And he'd never been able to hear them call his name over the howl of a 600-horsepower engine.

So in these moments, a man who proclaims that "racing is in my blood, and everything else is an aside,'' questions whether the sport will ever offer this sort of rush again.

"It's going to be difficult. Difficult,'' he said, almost guiltily. "The adrenaline rush, wow, the intensity is like after a race, but you never get to see them screaming in a race. That connection ... I'm going to miss it.''

Castroneves gained fame as a racer, but this is different by thousands of degrees. Performing for nearly 20-million viewers weekly, he became the Dancing With the Stars champion and a national phenomenon. Incommunicado travel, quiet dinners became a memory. But new opportunities presented themselves, such as this barnstorm with some of the TV cast before his race season begins in a couple of months.

According to tour manager Angie Warner, attendance spiked when Castroneves and 19-year-old partner Julianne Hough joined for seven dates, and more than 1,200 paid upwards of $175 to sit at red-clothed tables by the ballroom floor for the Times Forum show.

The reason, she said, was how Castroneves seems to personally perform for each audience member. A man who has spent a career hidden by a visor has made a second career of showing what is behind it.

"His expressions,'' Warner said. "The reason he and Julianne are so good is because they play to everyone in the room.''

The crowd this night in Tampa skewed demographically toward 40- and 50-something women who pored over programs and wailed during both of Castroneves' routines in the two-hour show.

"I lost count how many autographs I gave to wives and grandmas,'' he said. "I am the king of the grandmas, which is great. I love it. They are the most experienced of people and they can see the true me.''

Castroneves and Hough are the only cast members to practice with a large band about five hours before the show, though Hough's Yorkiepoo, Jackson, complicates the samba footwork by mincing between their steps and jumping at their legs in a bid for attention. He has worked on these routines since October and with the contest won, the pressure should be off. Still, Castroneves keeps honing.

"There's always butterflies,'' he said. "Even if there's no contest, I want to be perfect for the people. I don't want them to be tired of me and think, 'Oh, there's that guy again.' ''

It's a syndrome Warner has tried to address. This, she says, is about the show, and for now, the show is Helio.

"I think maybe he puts some extra pressure on himself and feels the need to be perfect because he won the competition and they had so many perfect scores,'' she said. "But I told him: 'Everyone is not here to see a perfect score. They are here to see you.' ''

Castroneves' appeal could eventually benefit the Indy Racing League, which has become subordinate to NASCAR in terms of public appeal. A mass public relations campaign by the league helped generate the fan vote that partly accounted for Castroneves' TV victory. He continues to repay the IRL one soul, one photograph at a time.

Two hours before the Tampa show, a group of women from Sarasota awaited a meet-and-greet with Castroneves and Newton, cooing like school girls when he popped from his dressing room and assumed his wide-mouthed grin.

"Helio,'' said Jane Haase, peering around the corner as if to make sure she wouldn't offend Newton, "he's about the cutest thing I've ever seen.''

Haase didn't know who Castroneves was until the show, didn't know he has raced in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg since 2005, winning the last two. (Castroneves later dutifully encouraged the audience to attend the April 6 event.)

The women and the entertainers chatted. They posed for snap shots. They then discussed every detail when Castroneves and Newton had retreated to the makeup room.

"He was more personable than I ever thought he would be,'' Haase said, clutching her digital camera close. "I thought a race car driver would be more ... rough, be really full of himself. He's like our friend now.''

Out by the ballroom floor, at Table 62, two friends from Venice perused their gift bag as an amateur dance competition was about to begin.

So, who are you here to see? Wayne Newton?

"Helio! Do we look like Wayne Newton chicks?'' laughed Kathy Everling, a native Indianan. "He won my heart when he said that (DWTS) trophy would look good between his two Indy 500 trophies.''

Castroneves knows this will end, and he's eager to resume racing. Stepping completely outside what he thought was his talent will actually help his driving, he said.

"I said I was going to put the trophy for dancing between the two Indy 500s. I did it,'' he said. "It's right there, and every time I go out of my house I look at that trophy and I say, 'You know what, if I put my heart and soul and determination into something, I can do anything.' ''