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But the strain on Castroneves, who lost 12 pounds from his 5'7", 145-pound frame during the trial, was obvious. He would come home after a day in court, avoid the television, retreat to his bedroom for hours—"He cried almost every night in there," says Kati—and surf the Internet. He had recently created a Facebook account, and he accepted every friend request (as many as 200 a day), most with encouraging messages attached. Real-life friends rallied round as well. NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon kept in constant touch. Wayne Newton left a song on his voice mail. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sent supportive text messages.
Cuban met Castroneves when they were contestants on Dancing with the Stars in 2007. Castroneves won the competition, which did more for his Q-rating than anything he's ever accomplished on the racetrack. As he likes to joke, grandmothers around the country fell in love with him. "Helio just makes everyone smile," says Deena Katz, the senior talent producer for the show. "Our audience embraces people who thoroughly enjoy themselves, and Helio obviously does. He's one of the best we've ever had."
Castroneves's showmanship marks every race win. After his first major victory, in the 2000 Detroit Grand Prix, he was so caught up in the moment that he forgot he was supposed to drive his car to pit road. Instead, he stopped along the front stretch to gather his thoughts. But when Castroneves saw the fans cheering wildly for him, he hopped out of his car and scrambled up the catch fence to be closer to them. Dubbed Spiderman as a result, Castroneves has made the climb after every one of his 20 IndyCar victories. It was such a hit that NASCAR's Tony Stewart started climbing fences, too, in 2005.
When Castroneves met the husky Stewart later that year, Stewart challenged him to a fence-climbing race. "Tony, relax man," Castroneves said, grinning. "Lose a little weight and then we'll have a battle to see who can climb the fastest." Quintessential Castroneves, using humor to disarm and befriend.
But not even Castroneves could laugh off his legal predicament. While the trial dragged on for six weeks, the IndyCar season started without him. The series opener in St. Petersburg on April 5 was the first scheduled ride he had missed since he was 11 years old. "In 1989 I broke my leg, and it was supposed to be in a cast for 30 days," Castroneves says. "But my dad and I sawed off the cast in the bathtub after 15 days because I had a race for a national championship. That's how much racing means to me."
The case went to the jury on April 12. The deliberations lasted six days. When the jury finally returned to the courtroom, Castroneves kept his eyes locked on the floor, afraid to look up, afraid to see if the body language of the jurors revealed their decision. The verdict: Helio and Kati were found not guilty on all six counts of tax evasion, and the jury was hung on one count of conspiracy; Miller was acquitted of all charges. Helio's lawyer, David Garvin, threw his arms around him, but Castroneves didn't move; the moment was too overwhelming. "It's over," Garvin told his client, who had tears streaming down his face. "It's time to go race."
A few hours later Castroneves and his family boarded a Penske jet to fly to Long Beach, Calif., which was hosting the second race of the IndyCar series this season. Cindric called before takeoff and asked Castroneves, Was there anything he wanted when Cindric met them at the Long Beach airport? "Bring my driver's suit," Castroneves said, "because I just might sleep in it tonight."
He restrained himself from that, but by five o'clock the next morning Castroneves had the firesuit on and was on the way to the Long Beach track. As if in a daze, he wandered through the empty garage area; when rival drivers, crew members, p.r. reps and reporters started to show up, Castroneves hugged nearly everyone he saw, each embrace lasting longer than the last. "Helio got me for a good 20-second hug," Danica Patrick says. "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone happier."
That afternoon Castroneves climbed into his race car for the first time in six months. As he accelerated out of pit lane, he couldn't stop looking at his steering wheel. "It felt too good to be true," he says. "It was like I was in a race car for the first time." He took it easy for three laps as he tried to find his rhythm. Then he cut loose. Though he had been back in the driver's seat for less than five minutes, his fourth lap nearly topped the speed chart. "The guy is gone for months, and in four laps he's running faster than me," Briscoe says. "That shows the kind of talent Helio has."
After starting the Long Beach race in the eighth position, Castroneves finished seventh. Said Castroneves afterward, "I'm back in the game." Indeed, a week later, at Kansas Speedway, he started in the rear of the field—penalized for driving below the white line during qualifying—but passed 27 cars to come in second.