Castroneves wins third Indy 500 just days after last of tax charges dropped

Jane Miller

Nearly overcome with emotion, Helio Castroneves sunk into his driver’s seat, trying to absorb the moment.

The popular driver, who one month ago was facing serious jail time, was now in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500.

Sunday’s win, his third in this storied race, capped a nearly perfect month of May.

It could have been so different for the Brazilian. Indicted last October on tax evasion charges, Castroneves, his sister Kati and attorney Alan Miller were on trial for six weeks. The jury returned a not guilty verdict on most of the charges on April 17 and the remainder of them were dropped a few days ago.

As he promised, team owner Roger Penske held Castroneves’ job for him and put him in a race the weekend the trial ended.

Then came Indianapolis, where Castroneves made a clean sweep — the pole, the pit-stop contest on Friday and now the race.

“When I was in the Victory lap, normally I cry or normally I scream to the guys, celebrate, and this time, I have no words,” Castroneves said Sunday. “I just let it go. It was a very special moment.”

The 2001 and 2002 winner led the first seven laps but spent most of the middle portion of the race behind Target Chip Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, the winners of the last two 500s. Castroneves said he was just taking it easy.

“We were having all sorts of radio problems since the beginning of the race,”  Castroneves said. “And then, we had a little issue with the gearbox on the pit stops. Toward the end, we were just feeling the car — but once I got in front, it was never look back.” 

But his race was not without adventure. When Tony Kanaan had his hard crash on lap 98, Castroneves was not far behind.

“I saw a piece of wing coming straight to me,”  he said. “I told the guys to check the air box because I thought something hit. We did stop right on that yellow and we found out there was a piece of carbon (fiber) stuck into the right front or left front tire.” 

Castroneves, who led 66 laps — second to Dixon’s 73 —  took the lead for the final time on lap 142, passing Dixon just after a restart for cleanup of Nelson Phillipe’s accident. His race manager, Tim Cindric, told him to save fuel but the radio problems kept Castroneves from hearing the lap count.

“So I’m like, ‘OK, forget it, keep going.’ I didn’t even ask the lap time that the second place (Dan Wheldon) was doing. So at that point, I was just trying to finish the race.” 

As Castroneves sailed toward the checkered flag, 2005 winner Wheldon and Danica Patrick waged their own battle. On the final restart on lap 182, Patrick pulled along side Wheldon and thought she would make the pass.

“I thought I was going to pass him completely on the outside, but that did not happen,” she said.

Wheldon finished second and Patrick third, her best finish at the Brickyard.

Fans stood a roared as the red and white No. 3 streaked past the last two laps, then scurried to the fence to watch Castroneves’ signature fence climb — slightly delayed while the yellow-shirt security force tried to hold him in the car.

The win also was popular with his fellow drivers.

“With Helio winning, that’s great for him and everything that’s been going on with him for the last sort of, well, I don’t know, year or years,” Patrick said. “So I’m happy to see him happy. And he’s great for the sport. So congrats to Helio, he had this standout month really. If you’d ask me who was going to win, I would have said Helio.” 

Castroneves is the sixth driver to win three Indy 500s, joining Louis Meyer, Wilber Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser.  A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, who was the backstretch spotter for Castroneves on Sunday, are the only four-time winners of the race.

But Castroneves is just 34 years old. Can he be the first five-time winner?

“You can’t be thinking about five without making three,” he said. “We just made three and now I will be thinking about the fourth. But I will think about it, dream about it, but we’ve got to work for it. Certainly, I have the team to do that, but we have a long way. Right now, for me, I’m just going to enjoy this moment because it’s very special.” 

Jane Miller can be reached at