When Helio Castroneves walked out the doors of Miami's U.S. Federal Courtroom 13-4 on Friday afternoon, he emerged as a different person than the one who first entered that spacious hall nearly two months ago.
Outwardly, he spent the entire trial trying to convince those around him that he was still the smiling, fence-climbing, champagne-spraying, dance floor-cutting eternal optimist we'd all grown to love.
However, as I sat in that courtroom March 18, which turned out to be nearly the exact midpoint of the trial, what I witnessed from the gallery was a man of great worry, his trademark toothpaste-commercial smile replaced by an unconscious frown and a furrowed brow. He came to our shores more than a decade ago with no money in his pocket and a hyphen in his last name. He spoke in broken English of the American dream, about how he had come here from Brazil looking for a fast car and a spot in the Indianapolis 500.
But the founders and the keepers of that dream, the U.S. government, chose to turn it into night terrors.
The kid who had hoisted both the Borg-Warner Trophy and the "Dancing With the Stars" mirror ball trophy disappeared somewhere within the walls of that courthouse, perhaps within the walls of his very own home, where he has been held prisoner since the first of the year.
The kid was replaced by an understandably jaded man who addressed the media briefly in his native tongue of Portuguese instead of the language of his accusers. He rubbed a rosary as he spoke, then jetted west to reclaim his IndyCar ride on the eve of perhaps open-wheel racing's most Americanized event, the glitzy Long Beach Grand Prix.
"I just want to thank God and my fans and all those who have been praying for me," Castroneves said. "Instead of going to Disneyland, I want to go to Long Beach and race. I'm going back to racing."
When he walks through the paddock Saturday, no doubt he will be swarmed by his teammates, competitors and fans. As always, he will greet them with hugs, handshakes and a smile. But deep down, he has long wondered where they have all been while he has been dragged through a mud bog of paperwork and finger-pointing. Sure, there were plenty of texts, e-mails and voice mails, but day after day he took his seat among his team of eight lawyers and two co-defendants and turned to see whether any of his friends had come to sit in the gallery. Few did. Meanwhile, the opposite side of the aisle was packed with supporters of the prosecutors.
On Thursday and Friday, the rows behind Castroneves finally were filled. The gallery got a real sense of the tension involved when the shouting coming from the jury deliberation room behind the judge's bench became so loud that the judge asked that the courtroom be cleared and that everyone step out into the lobby.
When the verdicts were finally read, the spectators released that tension in the form of tears and cheers.
"I've been doing this a long time," David M. Garvin, one of the racer's lead defense attorneys, said Friday afternoon. "I've never seen an outpouring like that from the gallery."
But the newly arrived supporters had missed the most painful part of the experience. For six weeks, Castroneves was portrayed as a criminal mastermind, tried in the same building as Miami's most notorious drug lords. The champion's entire life was dissected and his manhood dismantled page by page for everyone in the courtroom to see, from the jurors to the onlooking army of IRS agents to a group of high school students who had stopped by for a field trip.
"Is that really the guy from 'Dancing With the Stars'?" One girl whispered to a classmate during a brief recess.
"I can't tell," her friend replied. "I wish he would smile. He was always smiling on the show."
Long before the outcome of the case had been determined -- guilt, innocence or even the partial acquittal we ended up with -- Castroneves' psyche already had been put into the wall. Even now, there are unanswered questions and untripped legal land mines that likely will keep him on edge for the foreseeable future. There are potential tax matters pending back in Brazil surrounding a deal with sponsor Coimex. And if the U.S. government wishes to, it can pursue rulings on the conspiracy counts against Helio and sister Kati on which the jury remained hung, though the unusually frank language from U.S. District Judge Donald Graham on Friday left little doubt that the jury vote was leaning toward acquittals there, as well.
"Fear and embarrassment are what the federal prosecutors are aiming for," said Bob Barnes of Bernhoft Law, one of the criminal defense attorneys who defended Wesley Snipes in the government's last high-profile tax evasion case. In February 2008, the actor was acquitted on charges of conspiracy but found guilty of tax evasion. "In this case, he's not the only one [who] has been embarrassed. They have to. It had become the marching orders of the Bush administration to go after high-profile people in these cases because it was easy pickings and they could be held up as an example. We'll see if that changes with the new administration. The conviction rate in these cases is more than 90 percent. But now they've essentially lost two in a row. They'll likely move on."
On Saturday morning, Castroneves will be back behind the wheel of a race car. Back in the only environment where his world makes sense, where there are no papers, contracts or lawyers, although Garvin and fellow acquitted defendant Alan Miller will be in the pits cheering him on. He finally will be back in the cockpit, a place he has been denied access to for the better part of half a year.
He will smile, race, perhaps even win. However, he won't be the same beneath the helmet. Perhaps one day he'll return to the smile of a man we once embraced as an American hero who coincidentally was born somewhere else. Perhaps one day his faith in the American dream will be restored. But that time is not now.
I, for one, can't blame him. Can you?
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.