- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

KANSAS CITY, KAN. (AP) - Helio Castroneves has a sore neck. His shoulder blades burn, his back aches and his hips tight.

That energetic smile? Back and bigger than ever.

After months of mental anguish from a grueling tax evasion trial, Castroneves is thrilled to be back to racing _ even if it does smart a little.

“I’m a little tired, but it’s a very good feeling of tired,” Castroneves said Tuesday from his office in Coral Gables, Fla. “It was physical. For the first time in a long time it was physical, not just mental. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Castroneves was acquitted of tax evasion charges on Friday, ending a six-month ordeal that left him mentally exhausted. Less than 24 hours after avoiding what could have been a six-year prison term, the popular Brazilian driver was 3,000 miles away at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, back in the comforting cocoon of his No. 3 Team Penske IndyCar.

Time to recover, maybe reflect on what happened? Castroneves could do that later. He couldn’t wait to get back to the track, with his team and friends again.

“To be back in racing so fast, people were like are you sure you’re able to do that?” he said. “Guys, you don’t understand. The only place I want to be right now is racing. The only place I want to be is with my team. That’s me. That’s what I did since I was 11 years old. I just missed it so much.”

Once Castroneves got back on the track, it was as if he never left.

Sure, it was a bit of an adjustment to get the feel for the car; working out the braking points, when to downshift, remembering the nuances of the track. He figured it out quickly, though, qualifying eighth despite a crash that left him with a headache on Saturday, finishing seventh at the race on Sunday.

“It took a little while. It’s like when you play tennis for a while and you stop: the ball seems to come a little faster to you,” Castroneves said. “It was a lot of little things coming back slowly.”

Now that his whirlwind weekend is over, Castroneves has had time to reflect on what happened.

The six months away from racing were difficult, the seven weeks in court agonizing. The happy-go-lucky guy everyone knew went into a shell during the trial, rarely flashing that megawatt smile that made him one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers and helped him win over a new crop of fans from “Dancing With the Stars.” Facing an uncertain future, possibly jail time, Castroneves had no reason to smile.

What kept him going, from withdrawing completely, was the support he received from all over the world.

While Castroneves refused to read anything on the Internet about himself or racing _ it was too depressing _ e-mails poured in and fans flooded his Web site and Facebook page with well wishes, bible verses, personal prayers. There were thousands in all, each one building moral support that carried Castroneves through the most difficult stretch of his life.

“The only thing that kept my mind off everything and working right was those fans,” he said. “It was so beautiful. I will never forget it. It was incredible. People sometimes don’t realize that it helps a lot. I’m so glad I have fans like this.”

Now that the trial is over, Castroneves can finally put his focus back on racing, look toward a more certain future.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion returned home to Florida on Monday evening and immediately started figuring out the rest of his season, starting with this week’s race at Kansas Speedway _ his first oval race since winning at Chicago last September. He’ll race at Indy next month and compete in as many races as he can in hopes of winning his first IRL season championship.

Whatever happens from here, Castroneves figures he can handle it.

“When the car is going to loose now, I think I’m going to be like, I can do this,” Castroneves said. “If I can handle the seven weeks of the trial, I can probably handle for a few laps a loose car. Definitely, I’m ready for that situation.”

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