Castroneves in the clear

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the town of Ribeirao Preto, near the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, legend has it that a magical dolphin named Boto often swims up-river from the south Atlantic Ocean to escape the sharks, only to change into a handsome, playful man who seduces all the pretty young women of the countryside.

It is no coincidence that Helio Castroneves -- born in Ribeirao Preto -- appears to have captured more than a little bit of Boto's magic.

Yesterday, the 34-year-old Castroneves, having only this week finally escaped the prospect of jail time after months in and out of courtrooms defending himself against charges that he evaded paying taxes on $5 million US, won his third Indianapoils 500 and a record 15th for team owner Roger Penske.

"This place is magical," he said.

Pulling away over the final laps, Castroneves pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway. Then, living up to his Spider-Man nickname, he climbed out of his car after the victory lap and scaled the fence along the main grandstand with his pit crew.

It was a final vindication for Castroneves, whose trademark smile and effervescent personality was strained to the breaking point by the accusations that he and his business manager/sister Kati were tax cheats in their adopted country.

As he drank the traditional quart of milk at the yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tears streamed down his face. He said this was the exclamation point on the end of his own public annus horribilis.

"This is incredible. I think my tears speak for everything," he said.

Through all his troubles, Penske never left any doubt he believed in his driver's innocence. Castroneves said that yesterday was, in a very, small way, a thank you to Penske for that loyalty.

"I have to thank Roger and everybody on the team ... because they gave me my life back," Castroneves said. "I am here because of those guys."

He said that, in the space of one year, he had gone from being a champion race car driver and international celebrity after winning the monstrously successful Dancing With The Stars franchise, to a defendant in a criminal case that could have seen him spend up to 25 years in a federal prison.

"You guys don't understand," Castroneves said to a media throng after the race. "(It was) Indy and it was hoping I could come back here that kept me strong."

Even after being cleared of the criminal charges, Castroneves came face to face with the only other controversy in his life when he got to Indianapolis. That was his old nemesis, Paul Tracy.

For the whole month of May, Tracy had told anyone who would listen -- and lots did -- that he was the real winner of the 2002 Indy 500 when race officials handed the Borg Warner Trophy to Castroneves, ruling that the Canadian had passed the Brazilian under yellow in the final lap.

And here was Tracy, back at Indy seven years and two days after that incident, playing the part of prankster himself, and loving that he could steal some of Castroneves' limelight.

That, however, like the tax charges, went out the window when Castroneves crossed the finish line ahead of Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon and third-place Danica Patrick of Andretti-Green yesterday.

Not that Tracy didn't make a challenge of it, finishing an incredible ninth after having been out of racing himself for more than 18 months, except for his lone 2008 race at the Rexall Edmonton Indy.

"Good for Helio," Tracy said. "It was an incredible race. And after all he has gone through, he deserves this moment."

As for his own performance yesterday, Tracy said he was excited that he was able to contend with the best open wheel drivers in North America on racing's biggest stage.

"I am now looking forward to the Canadian races (Toronto and Edmonton)," he said. "We missed our setup just a little bit (yesterday) or we could have an even better finish."

Montreal's Alex Tagliani, meanwhile, roared from the final starting spot, 33rd, to finish 11th, making him the top rookie for the 2009 event.


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