- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

Helio Castroneves wants to be the fastest man on the track but welcomes the chance to slow down.

After a two-year stretch in which he won a popular television dance competition and faced trial on charges of tax evasion, the Brazilian IndyCar driver is happy to focus solely on racing.

“It’s not good for the health, I must tell you,” he said last week. “Don’t try it at home. It was a real roller coaster.”

His victory in 2007 on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” established him as a popular figure in sports. The buzz, however, cooled after Castroneves was accused of dodging more than $2.3 million in U.S. taxes. A jury acquitted him of the charges in April, and he returned to race for Team Penske in Long Beach, Calif.

“That’s it for me, man,” he said, recalling the whirlwind 48-hour period that took him from courtroom to race car. “I want to be just focusing on this season and next season, because no question it’s been quite a lot of publicity. People are like, ‘You stay home now. Enough is enough.’ ”

If Castroneves’ legal troubles cost him any edge on the track, it hasn’t shown. After missing the IndyCar Series’ opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla., he finished seventh in Long Beach two weeks later followed by a second-place finish at Kansas Speedway. A month later, he won his third Indianapolis 500 and wept in the winner’s circle.

A victory at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6 gave him as many wins as he had all of last season, when he had eight second-place finishes, securing victories only in two of the last four points races.

“It’s all about opportunities,” he said. “Sometimes you have a good car, but there’s one guy who’s getting better times. We definitely were knocking on the door.”

On Saturday, Castroneves will take on Richmond International Raceway, a track that demands speed and savvy in negotiating traffic. Fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan won last year’s race; Castroneves’ only win came in 2005. Castroneves sits fourth in the points, behind reigning champion Scott Dixon, 2007 champion Dario Franchitti and Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe.

Castroneves said the unification of American open-wheel racing last year has proved to be a boon to the sport, and he voiced concerns about a possible rift between Formula 1 drivers. As many as eight teams threatened last week to form their own series, citing opposition to a proposal to cap team spending. A similar fracturing of open-wheel racing in the United States led to a decline in popularity from which it is still recovering.

“Examples are there to be followed,” Castroneves said. “You follow what not to do. Look how long it took to come back again. If they’re doing the same, it’s going to take them 10 or 12 years to come back. I think it’s silly.”

The Indy Racing League could face some tense moments of its own in coming years. Proposals include an expansion of races abroad to the introduction of different engines and chassis to compete with Honda and Dallara.

But Castroneves said the IRL should hold off on any drastic changes until after the economy improves. Uniformity, he said, has allowed teams to keep costs relatively low, which is helpful when sponsorships are harder to come by.

As for his future in racing, Castroneves said he is focused on winning the IndyCar title this year, even as several open-wheel drivers have made the move to NASCAR.

“Everything is about timing,” he said. “I really like where I am at. Team Penske’s been incredible, and after what they did [for] me, I am not thinking about that. I really enjoy open wheel right now. I feel like I’m on top of my game, and I want to achieve my goals as well, which is the championship. And then hopefully next year I’ll have another victory in Indianapolis, which would be fantastic.

“As long as I have the fire and am having fun, I’m going to be here.”

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