- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Helio Castroneves has been living the American dream for the past decade. But his charmed life may be turning into a nightmare.
The 33-year-old Brazilian was in U.S. District Court in Miami on Friday in handcuffs and leg irons to answer a seven-count indictment for tax evasion and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, charges that if proved could land Castroneves in jail for up to 35 years, or at least cost him a substantial fine.
Along with his alleged co-conspirators (his sister and business manager, Katiucia, and lawyer Alan R. Miller), a teary-eyed Castroneves entered a not-guilty plea and was ordered to post a $10 million bond. That outlay should spring the Sao Paulo native in time to make his scheduled appearance in a Penske Racing Porsche in this weekend's Petit Le Mans sports car race at the Road Atlanta circuit. But with his passport revoked and international travel privileges restricted, it is unlikely that Helio will be able to participate in the IndyCar Series' exhibition race at Surfers Paradise, Australia, later this month.
The alleged offenses also draw into question Castroneves' long-term future with the Penske organization, which recently signed the driver to a multiyear contract extension.
Castroneves was only 24 years old when he was plucked out of relative obscurity and signed by Roger Penske in November 1999, just eight days after Greg Moore -- Penske's intended driver for the 2000 CART Indy-car season -- was killed in an accident at California Speedway.
Less than two weeks earlier, Helio had learned that his then-current team, Hogan Racing, was pulling out of the CART series, and that he was likely facing unemployment. Moore's tragic death turned out to be a lucky break for Castroneves.
Landing with Indy-style racing's most successful team alongside his seasoned countryman Gil de Ferran, Castroneves blossomed from a promising young talent with a propensity for chewing up gearboxes (his nickname among the other Brazilian drivers was Cupin d'aco, Portuguese for "steel termite") into a polished race winner. After scoring his first Indy-car race win at Detroit in June 2000, an ebullient Castroneves spontaneously climbed one of the chain-link safety fences that lined the street circuit, a trademark victory celebration that was shamelessly copied years later by NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
In 2001, Penske's team made two exploratory starts in the rival Indy Racing League, and Castroneves scored a sensational rookie win at the Indianapolis 500. A year later, with Team Penske now competing full-time in the IRL IndyCar Series, Castroneves repeated his Indy triumph and developed into a regular race winner and championship contender.
Although he has never won a series championship, Castroneves is one of the most successful drivers in IRL history, with a total of 14 race wins.
Still, Helio arguably didn't hit the big time until he was selected to participate in the fall 2007 season of ABC's popular "Dancing with the Stars." Paired with Julianne Hough, Castroneves captivated mainstream America with his graceful athleticism and radiant smile. He also captured the love of the show's judges and the TV voting audience, as he emerged victorious over Spice Girl Melanie Brown in the final competition.
Castroneves' success on "DWTS" delivered the IndyCar Series a massive publicity boost, and the general upswing for the Indy Racing League continued this spring when IRL founder Tony George finally reached a truce with the Champ Car World Series to put an end to the 13-year split that had crippled American open-wheel racing. Attendance increased in 2008, as did television ratings, strong signals that a form of racing that was once more popular than NASCAR is on the comeback trail.
Now comes news that Indy racing's second-most recognizable star (behind Danica Patrick, of course) could be in hot water with the law. Does that mean trouble is brewing for the IndyCar Series?
"Helio has been a great asset for us on the track, but we do have some character clauses in our rulebook," said IRL vice president of public relations John Griffin. "We'll have to see how this plays out, but we remain supportive and will continue to operate under the assumption that he is innocent until proven otherwise."
Castroneves may have bigger problems with his employer. As a businessman -- including with his racing teams -- Roger Penske scrupulously tries to maintain a squeaky-clean image, and "The Captain" cannot be pleased that Castroneves has dragged his name into the mud, though Penske and his team have not been implicated in any way in the government's indictment.
Although a Penske Racing spokesman said that the team has been cooperating with federal authorities as a witness for several months, much of the government's case against the driver reportedly is based on claims that he failed to pay tax on $5 million he received as part of a licensing agreement with the team.
It's ironic that Castroneves will strap on a bright yellow fire suit in the colors of Penske team sponsor DHL this weekend at Road Atlanta, because Helio wore a flashy yellow outfit when he won the "DWTS" crown in November. The successful "DWTS" appearance may ultimately prove to have been a double-edged sword for Castroneves, because his increased public profile could have whetted federal prosecutors' desire to put the hammer down on the alleged tax dodger.
With IndyCar racing rating a poor second cousin to NASCAR these days, Castroneves might have slipped under the radar had he not gained the additional tabloid notoriety from the prime-time dance contest.
It's often said that fame carries a price, an adage that might be hitting home for Castroneves right about now. Paying taxes on $5.5 million in earnings might have cost Helio upward of $1 million, but it could have been a cheaper and better alternative to what he may be soon facing.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.