Helio’s life takes nice turns in past year

Helio Castroneves is chatting away with crew members outside his

race hauler when fans call out his name.

Never mind that they mispronounce it (it’s El-EE-oh) or that

it’s only two hours before the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. The

charismatic Brazilian driver instantly turns around and makes a

beeline for the group, then amiably poses for pictures and signs

autographs for several minutes.

Castroneves, who went on to win Sunday’s race, embraces the

attention that many professional athletes avoid.

“I like to have a good positive energy, take pictures with the

guys, have fun,” he said after his victory.

He’s having much more fun heading into Sunday’s race at Long

Beach than he was this time last year. Saturday will be the

one-year anniversary of his acquittal on federal tax-evasion

charges. He was back behind the wheel of the No. 3 Team Penske car

two days later for the Streets of Long Beach.

Since then, life has taken a few nice turns. He has won his

third Indianapolis 500, become a father with girlfriend Adriana and

regained the easy smile that faded during the trial.

And the daddy of 4-month-old Mikaella doesn’t sweat the small

stuff anymore like slow service or words that rub him the wrong

way, said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing.

“The biggest change that I notice is the small things that used

to irritate him in life aren’t that important to him any more,”

said Cindric, who has been working with Castroneves since he joined

Team Penske a decade ago. “Between his trial and becoming a

father, he’s realized the things that used to bother him in life

aren’t that important anymore. He’s able to shrug off some of the

distractions. Even the financial perspectives have changed a

bit.

“He’s more gracious in some ways just because it’s not that big

of a deal anymore. He appreciates what he has and the opportunity

he has even more than he did before.”

Like fellow IndyCar racer Danica Patrick, Castroneves has

successfully entered the pop-culture realm. He won TV’s “Dancing

with the Stars” in 2007.

Unlike Patrick, he also has 17 IndyCar wins in 133 career

starts. Castroneves treats fans to his “Spiderman” move of

climbing fences after victories, as he did on the backstretch at

Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday.

“What you see is real in terms of his enthusiasm for life,”

Cindric said. “I’m always surprised by his appreciation for the

fan support. Helio’s always been the guy, he wants the camera on

him, wants the attention, but he appreciates those who give it to

him. We joke with him, his middle name is ‘I love myself.’

“He wants that attention but he gives back.”

Castroneves figures most first-time fans – like many who

attended the Birmingham race – don’t realize how close they can get

to drivers and their cars. The signings and photos are a part of

the entertainment package he doesn’t mind providing.

However, he gives athletes the benefit of the doubt when he’s

gotten the brushoff himself.

“I do have my moments of quietness, but people come here to

enjoy and have fun,” Castroneves said. “I understand when I see

an athlete, sometimes I see an athlete and they turn around. And

I’m like, ‘Man, I put my hand right in front of him and he didn’t

shake it.’

“People are focused and they didn’t see. But everything has its

time.”

That’s his philosophy when it comes to racing, too. You don’t

win 17 races before your 35th birthday or a third of your first

nine Indy 500 attempts – the fastest driver to get three wins at

the sport’s signature event – or even a televised dancing

competition without a serious competitive side.

“He’s certainly focused,” Cindric said. “The guy you see on

television and dancing around and all that, his demeanor is very

different in a race car. When he puts his visor down, he’s very

focused.”