Friday, April 17, 2009
Castroneves back in No. 3 IndyCar
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Helio Castroneves will be back on the track less than 24 hours after the Brazilian driver was acquitted of tax evasion charges.
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said on Friday the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner will return to his No. 3 IndyCar in time for practice and qualifying Saturday for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Cindric said team owner Roger Penske has dispatched a private plane from his headquarters in Detroit to pick up Castroneves in Miami, where the trial was held. Castroneves, who was the series runner-up last year, was expected to arrive in Long Beach on Friday night.
After six days of deliberation and a six-week trial, a jury acquitted the 33-year-old Castroneves, his sister and business manager Katiucia, and an attorney on tax evasion charges. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on conspiracy charges against Castroneves and his sister. The U.S. Attorney's office said it will review its options on the hung conspiracy charge.
And Castroneves will go back to racing.
Will Power has been Castroneves' temporary replacement. He will drive a third Penske entry in Sunday's race and will race for the team next month in the Indy 500. Cindric would not elaborate on Power's future beyond Indianapolis.
"I'm very happy for Helio and his family," Power said. "I've been aware that this could happen at any time. I just wanted to take it day by day and do the best job for the team. I was ready for it, so it was no big shock to me."
Castroneves' team and Indy Racing League officials were overjoyed to learn one of the series' most popular drivers, and the winner of "Dancing with the Stars" in 2007, would be returning.
"On behalf of Roger and the entire organization, we're ecstatic with the outcome [of the trial]," Cindric said during a news conference. "It's been a very difficult time for all of us, obviously in particular he and his family. We're very, very happy to know that he can go on with his life, business as usual."
That means getting back in the car as soon as possible.
Saturday's morning practice on the temporary street circuit in downtown Long Beach will be divided into two groups of drivers. Brian Barnhart, president of competition and racing operations for the IRL, said Castroneves will be allowed to run in both 30-minute sessions.
Cindric said he and Castroneves exchanged text messages after the verdict.
"He and I are basically, 'Hey, we're ready for you.' And his response was: 'I'm coming, man.' ... I know he wants nothing more than to get back in the race car and I have 100 percent confidence it will be like riding a bike for him," Cindric said.
Power, who finished fifth two weeks ago in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Fla., remained in the No. 3 Dallara for Friday's final practice and posted the fastest lap on the 1.97-mile, 11-turn circuit. But the Australian will move to the team's No. 12 entry on Saturday. That gives Penske three of the 23 drivers who will race here, including St. Petersburg winner Ryan Briscoe.
"I just went on with my job," Power said of his performance in practice. "Whatever's in the future for me, I was going to concentrate on what is right in front of me.
"I know Helio is getting a good car," he added. "Hopefully, he drives like I do. The Penske guys are going to put the same setup on the No. 12 car and they're pretty accurate. They rarely get it wrong."
Reigning series champion Scott Dixon, second fastest Friday in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry, said he too is delighted Castroneves is returning.
"It's cool," he said. "I think it's definitely a nice surprise for everybody. It's a big change for Will, but Helio's very well known and definitely one of the great personalities we have. It's unfortunate he had to go through what he did, but it's a pleasure to have him back."
IRL drivers weren't alone in hailing Castroneves' acquittal.
"I can only imagine what's gone on in all of their minds, about potential jail time and what that would mean for careers and lifestyles and lives and family and all of that," Jimmie Johnson said from Phoenix, where the NASCAR star was preparing for the Subway 500. "I can only imagine what he's going through. It's good medicine. There's nothing better than being in the race car."
Keith Wiggins, owner of HVM Racing, which fields cars for second-year IndyCar driver E.J. Viso, also welcomed Castroneves back and noted that the Penske is one of the few with the resources to add another entry on late notice.
"There are probably only two or three owners who could really pull this off, getting Helio out here and possibly race, and Roger is one of those guys," Wiggins said "He has the resources, people and budget to do it. It's going to be great for the league. For us, [Helio] certainly becomes a favorite that we now have to beat."
Power won last year's race driving for KV Racing Technology. It was the final event for the Champ Car World Series, which was absorbed into the IRL, ending 12 years of often bitter rivalry between the two American open-wheel series.
The IndyCar Series raced the same weekend in Japan, where Danica Patrick won her first race.
Castroneves has driven here four times, the last in 2001, the Penske team's final season in what was then CART, the predecessor to Champ Car. Castroneves, who finished second here in 2000, started the next year from the pole and led all 82 laps on the way to a dominating victory. The Penske team and Castroneves moved to the IRL full-time in 2002.