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It's casino night at the Brickyard Crossing restaurant in Indianapolis, and Helio Castroneves leads a small entourage into a back room that's tricked out for the evening with a craps table, a poker table, a roulette wheel and a blackjack table. All the IndyCar drivers, their firesuits swapped for Armani and Dior, are on hand for a little pretend gambling and glad-handing with sponsors at this charity event two weeks before the Indianapolis 500, but it's Castroneves, in a black collared shirt and black pants, who draws a crowd. Cameras flash in his face, women rush to kiss him on the cheek, a gray-haired man tells him his wife is dying to dance with him. Eventually Castroneves glide-steps through the throng and settles at the blackjack table. With a flourish he throws down $10,000—sure, they're all fake casino-night bills, but Castroneves nails the high roller's gesture. "It's time," he tells the dealer "to get the party started."
With his girlfriend, Atlanta restaurateur Adriana Henao, at his side and another 20 people looking on, including drivers Marco Andretti, Ryan Briscoe and Sarah Fischer, Castroneves is dealt 17. Against everyone's shouted advice he calls for a hit. The dealer flips a four of clubs. Blackjack.
"Everyone listen," Castroneves yells, as he turns to the cheering crowd. "It's very, very important that you pay taxes on your winnings. If you don't, they can send you to jail. And that is no good. Trust me, I know."
As laughter erupts around him, it seems as if nothing has changed for the famously irrepressible Castroneves, for years the most popular and magnetic driver in the IndyCar series. But only a month ago, when a jury in Miami was deciding whether to convict him of tax evasion and send him to prison for up to 35 years, Castroneves seemed a long shot to be driving in this year's 500. Yet here he is—acquitted and by his own account the survivor of what, even for a race driver, was a harrowing ride—in Indianapolis for Sunday's race, gunning for the most significant win of his career. "I've been through a hurricane and survived," Castroneves says with rare seriousness, as he walks out of the restaurant. "I feel like the luckiest man alive."
Already, Castroneves has had a memorable month. On May 9—the day before his 34th birthday—he won his third Indy 500 pole, with a four-lap qualifying average speed of 224.864 mph. Not only is he a two-time winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the favorite this year, but his organization, Penske Racing, has won a record 14 Indy 500s. Castroneves and Briscoe, his teammate and primary challenger, have dominated the speed charts all month at the 2.5-mile oval. "If I could win this race, it would be my biggest victory," says Castroneves, a native of São Paulo who will also have to fend off 2008 race winner and reigning series champion Scott Dixon, plus rising star Graham Rahal. "It would be a dream after waking up from a nightmare."
The nightmare began last Oct. 3, at 8:15 in the morning, when Castroneves and his sister and business manager, Kati, turned themselves in at the U.S. marshal's office in Miami to face federal tax-evasion charges. The two were handcuffed, shackled and led to separate jail cells. At the arraignment the government charged that Castroneves and his sister engaged in schemes to avoid paying taxes on $5,550,000 that the driver earned from racing and endorsements from 1999 through 2004. Castroneves's attorney Alan Miller was also indicted, accused of facilitating the schemes, which included diverting money to Seven Promotions, a Panamanian company held in the name of Castroneves's father, Helio Sr., and to Fintage Licensing, a company based in the Netherlands.
Defense lawyers maintained that the driver sought only to defer paying taxes on the earnings, which he had yet to collect. Also, Castroneves said that he knew nothing about U.S tax law and relied on advice from experts.
The day after the arraignment, all three defendants were released on bail and Helio flew from Miami to Atlanta, where he was to drive in a sports car race. Before the event he met with Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, in the team's motor coach. At one point during their conversation, a clip came on the television in the coach, of Castroneves in shackles and weeping into a handkerchief. "Hey, I'm on TV!" Castroneves yelled, trying to break the tension. "That's the bad movie I'm in."
Later that afternoon Castroneves provided another clip for the highlight shows: He went out and won the race. "It was obviously a calculated risk for us to stick with Helio," Cindric says. "But we all know that he doesn't have a bad bone in his body. And his sponsors stuck with him too. We hoped for the best result, but you never know what a jury is going to do."
On March 2 the trial began. Castroneves didn't want to be alone in his five-bedroom house in Coral Gables, Fla., so Kati; her husband, Eduardo; and their 10-month-old son, Eduardo Jr., who lived in Miami, moved in with him, and Helio's parents and grandmother flew in from Brazil to stay at his house during the trial. Many nights Castroneves found solace in playing with his nephew, crawling on the floor with him, laughing and enjoying the distraction.