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AUTO RACING

Helio Castroneves' life is back on track

After finding a new girlfriend and being acquitted of tax-evasion charges, the Brazilian driver says he's learning to keep things like Sunday's disappointing finish at Infineon in perspective.

August 25, 2009|Jim Peltz

SONOMA, CALIF. — As he raced toward Infineon Raceway's second turn, Helio Castroneves felt the front suspension of his red and white No. 3 race car snap.

Suddenly, he was careening off the pavement and into the dirt around the track, coming to a stop in swirls of dust. His race over, Castroneves then waited for emergency crews to pick him up.

It was a disappointing end Sunday compared with a year ago, when Castroneves basked in the glory of winning the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon, the flag of his native Brazil draped over him in Victory Lane.

But Castroneves isn't complaining. After the emotional roller-coaster he has endured in the last year, he can take his 18th-place finish Sunday in stride more than ever.

"When you've gone through something like that, you have the highs, you have the lows," Castroneves said. "I'm doing very well."

What Castroneves was referring to was his indictment and six-week trial on federal tax-evasion charges, which ended April 17 when he was acquitted by a jury in Miami.

The case carried the threat that the ebullient Castroneves, 34, who had gained added fame by winning the "Dancing With the Stars" television contest, might never race again.

But after his acquittal -- and after not participating in the IndyCar Series' opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- Castroneves was happily back in the car for the second race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Then came May and Castroneves' victory in the Indianapolis 500, which made him one of only nine drivers to win the legendary race at least three times.

Castroneves also won the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway in June. But he has also struggled at times, finishing 17th at Richmond and 18th at Toronto.

Despite another poor finish Sunday, Castroneves remains fourth in the championship standings, although he's 126 points behind leader Ryan Briscoe -- his teammate at Penske Racing -- and has little chance of winning this season's title.

Briscoe finished second Sunday to Dario Franchitti.

"It's a shame we missed one of the races and a lot of points because I want to win this championship, but I feel happy for my teammate Ryan," Castroneves said.

And as much as Castroneves wants to win his first championship, he's also working to add, as he put it, more "balance" to his life.

"Before it was only race, race, race," he said. Now, "I'm traveling quite a lot. Now I have someone special in my life, which is my girlfriend Adriana [Henao]. She's been a very supportive person."

Castroneves said he also continues to heal from the emotional and psychological "scars" of the tax case.

On the track, "it's getting the way it used to be," Castroneves said.

While his win at Indianapolis showed his racing skills hadn't diminished during his layoff, "I'm still learning," especially on the street circuits and other so-called curvy road courses such as Infineon, he said.

And once the race is over, he's grateful for "having someone with me right there," he said of Adriana.

"I'd like to share great moments" with her, Castroneves said. "We've already shared the bad moments. I think life is getting better."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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