IRL: A special memory suitable for ever

There are moments you should remember the rest of your life. This was one of them.

Fewer than six weeks after being acquitted of tax evasion charges, Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

For the third time.

Winning once is historic. Winning twice is monumental.

Three times?

The greatest spectacle in sports has been run 93 times yet Castroneves is only the ninth driver to win as many as three times. Only three men have won four times, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Four wins, and you’re a legend.

Anyone who doesn’t think that Castroneves won’t win another one is selling the Brazilian short. As long as he and Roger Penske’s team are together, they are a top five five contender forever.

Castroneves, just 34, really could potentially become Indy’s first five-time winner. He has won three times in the past nine years, and he will probably get another nine nine shots at it.

He won a nondescript race on Sunday, with little passing for the lead except on restarts. Castroneves, the polesitter, got it done when he needed to, taking it away from defending winner and IndyCar champion Scott Dixon on a restart.

The 2008 winner of “Dancing With the Stars,” Castroneves’ victory again at Indy proved he is a star of the highest magnitude powered by more than commercial hype.

Not only did he defeat 32 competitors, but he also beat the pressure of racing’s biggest stage where inches can end your day (Marco Andretti, Mario Moraes) or maybe your season (Vitor Meira, two broken vertebra).

Have you ever seen an athlete thank God with more sincerity than Castroneves as he crossed the finish line and climbed out of his car? Probably not.

“I want to take the opportunity to thank the Lord for giving the opportunity I had,” Castroneves said, and one has to believe in light of all he has been through that he would have felt just as thankful if he had finished behind Milka Duno.

“You guys kept me strong, you guys are the best,” he told fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’m so honored to have fans like you.”

Have you ever seen an athlete use the word honor with more sincerity? Probably not.

Castroneves faced more than three decades in prison if he had been found guilty of seven tax evasion-related charges by the federal government.

In the post-race press conference, he was asked how his faith had been challenged over the past six weeks. It was the only question that brought the emotional driver to tears. Few of us can imagine the stress exacted on his psyche.

Throughout interviews, before and after the race, he had thanked Team Penske principals — and the fans — for “giving me my life back.” They embraced him with open arms.

After six days of deliberations, Castroneves was acquitted on six counts on April 17. On the Friday before the Indy 500, the government dropped the final charge against Castroneves.

He said he was thankful he received a fair trial, which is what every American citizen –and even those who aren’t — are entitled to receive. Frankly, you don’t bet against the government in a tax evasion case. Ask Pete Rose.

Few athletes have ever experienced in such a short time span the personal and professional rollercoaster ridden by Castroneves.

Yet he rose to the occasion.

This, he said, is his home.

In the cockpit of a racing car. In Victory Lane at IMS. In your memory.

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