Damage to Helio's image could be serious
The last place we expected to see Indy 500 and 'Dancing With The Stars' champion Helio Castroneves was in a courtroom, shuffling across the floor in shackles.
His feet usually are working the pedals of a car or the steps of the tango.
Castroneves, possessed of a sunny personality, wept throughout his hearing Friday.
Castroneves, accustomed to glowing attention from the media, was peppered with questions about how he got himself into such a mess.
He stands accused of evading taxes on more than $5 million in income. He and his sister and a lawyer were indicted for planning to use an offshore shell corporation in Panama to hide the money in a ''pernicious'' scheme, according to the federal prosecutor.
Castroneves pleaded not guilty, and of course he is innocent until proved otherwise. But the Internal Revenue Service isn't known for filing flimsy cases.
A conviction, which carries a maximum sentence of 35 years, could put the brakes on Castroneves' career. Already his image has been tarnished.
The arraignment in Miami was a brutal and stunning comedown for Castroneves, a celebrity at racetracks worldwide and in Hollywood. Despite his accelerating fame, he was always charming and approachable, a star who hadn't become a prima donna. Fans would stop him in airports and he would pose for pictures, then get on the fan's cell phone to confirm to a disbelieving friend that yes, he really was Helio.
Handsome, dapper and upbeat, Castroneves loved the spotlight, and the spotlight loved him.
And now? He gets mentioned in the same breath as Pete Rose and Al Capone, notable tax cheats.
Tax evasion isn't a capital crime, but it paints the accused as greedy and duplicitous -- someone who considers himself above the law. Prosecutors also said Castroneves lied to his tax preparers.
''I do not understand about income tax rules,'' said Castroneves, 33, a native of Sao Paulo who lives in Coral Gables. ``I know the difference between right and wrong, and I did not do anything what those guys are saying.''
Castroneves' only sibling, sister Kati, managed his business interests. Her lawyer portrayed her -- as her brother portrayed himself -- as naive.
''She's a foreign national, not schooled in the United States, who relied on lawyers and accountants to advise her on Helio's financial and tax affairs,'' Howard Srebnick said.
Haven't we heard this before from athletes, who often claim they get duped and scammed? They say they are victims of unethical agents or confidants preying on their wealth and stardom.
Yet plenty of rich people keep track of their money and actually want to keep track of their money. Especially when it's a lot of money, in this case allegedly $5 million from a driving and licensing deal with Team Penske.
Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR champion and a friend of Castroneves, said he doesn't believe drivers should even have agents or middlemen. He relies on his stepfather, John Bickford, as his business manager, but Gordon wants to be at the negotiating table and investment meetings.
''To me, you're ultimately responsible about where it goes, how it gets there and what happens,'' Gordon said to reporters Friday at Talladega. ``If it sounds too good to be true, it is. That's the bottom line, and that's just common sense.
``In this situation we'll see how it plays out, but it's certainly not going to be a fun ride for Helio for a while.''
Everything was going so right for Castroneves. He won the Indy 500 in 2001 and 2002, the first driver to win two in a row since Al Unser in 1970 and 1971. Fans loved his signature ''Spiderman'' celebration of climbing the fence.
His 2007 Dancing With The Stars victory with partner Julianne Hough catapulted him to an even higher level of popularity. The show matches celebrities with professional hoofers, and those with the best chemistry get the most votes. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would groan, but it's a huge hit that opens doors in entertainment land, as Jason Taylor learned last year.
Castroneves has been all over Tinseltown, at awards shows, on magazine covers, in chat columns. His glamour stock skyrocketed.
TOUGH FOR IRL
He was just what the Indy Racing League needed. After the merger with Champ Car racing for this season and Danica Patrick's first victory, open-wheel racing surged.
There is hope, despite the defection of driver Sam Hornish Jr., for a return to the glory days and a shedding of its status as an afterthought to NASCAR, which has experienced a decline in ratings.
Castroneves' indictment -- which includes a prohibition on foreign travel -- is a blow to the sport. He'll continue wearing those Hugo Boss duds, but what sponsors will want to align with him now that he's in trouble with the government?
How can IRL chief Tony George get any promotional momentum out of Castroneves?
''I'm a race car driver, and I'm going to treat this like a race,'' Castroneves said.
Problem is, he's got the IRS on his tail. Miami Herald