IRL: Taxing, Not Dancing, is Castroneves’ Situation

Any time the federal government decides to press charges against a celebrity, it ain’t for kicks and grins. That’s what makes the Helio Castroneves situation so distressing. It’s reasonable to assume the Feds dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s before trying to make an example of one the sport’s most marketable stars.

Indicted for tax evasion and free on a $10 million bond, Castroneves was at the press conference in which Team Penske announced Will Power will handle preseason testing in Castroneves’ No. 3 prior to the start of the IRL’s Indycar Series.

Team owner Roger Penske had previously indicated that Castroneves didn’t need racing to get in the way of proving his innocence. If he can’t contest the entire season, which begins on April 5, the ride is Power’s. The trial is scheduled to begin March 2.

At the press conference, Castroneves almost apologetically reiterated his innocence, that he was “very confident.”

“I can’t wait for this thing to be over, for me to be back in the race car, do what I love most, which is racing,” Castroneves said.

If those words stand up, Castroneves will almost certainly have an opportunity to win the Indianapolis 500 for the third time.

Yet, it’s not the 500 that needs Castroneves. It’s the 2009 season.

His crossover appeal from winning “Dancing with the Stars” gave the IRL something legitimate to clutch and market. In him, the league has a marketable driver of immense skill and credibility separate from the network hype machine (although the network hype machine is responsible for that crossover appeal to begin with).

Though he has yet to win a championship — he was second to Scott Dixon by 17 points last season — Castroneves is likable, has name recognition and the skills to back it up on track. He is universally respected.

He has appeared in “People” and “Us”, but he deserved to be more prominent in “Sports Illustrated.” That’s open wheel racing’s problem — or maybe Sports Illustrated’s — more than it is Castroneves’.

If he returns to the series, there’s a built-in backstory, more media fodder. The whole “no such thing as bad publicity” thing if you believe that.

But should he disappear for any extended period, it is a potential disaster for the IRL. Danica Patrick may be a competent driver who can continue to attract attention by posing half-clothed in “fashion magazines” and stomping about like an 8-year-old, but if Castroneves is out of the league, Patrick again becomes the IRL’s only crossover star, and that’s not the way you rebuild a league.

No matter how good the racing or skillful the drivers, the IRL without Castroneves is doomed to again become the one-trick pony it was before unification, and they are unhealthy dance partners.

If this sounds too much like an obituary, it’s because this is cause for a fair amount of mourning among those who appreciate a skill set that doesn’t include NASCAR’s margin for error.

Castroneves is innocent until proven guilty, but this is not some Los Angeles celebrity case with a planted glove in the safe deposit box.

If Castroneves thought outrunning Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan was tough, wait until he gets a load of Eliot Ness.

As crimes go, this is the big leagues. It’s what landed Pete Rose (five months, fined $50,000), Chuck Berry (four months, 1,000 hours community service) and Al Capone (11 years, heavy fines) in prison. Guys don’t escape jail time.

Castroneves is treating this as a race. It’s one Indycar racing needs him to win.

Desperately.

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