Helio Castroneves delivered a triumphant and emotional return to racing in Long Beach this afternoon with some aggressive and quick practice laps followed by hugs, handshakes and tears.
"It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare," Castroneves said as he began to weep during a press conference. "I'm sorry. This has been very difficult time for me and my family."
On Friday Castroneves was acquitted of six tax evasion charges by a jury in Miami. The most serious charge of conspiracy deadlocked the jury, and it is considered unlikely that the Internal Revenue Service will attempt to pursue the case again.
Castroneves arrived in Long Beach late yesterday and was back in his familiar Penske Dallara-Honda on Saturday morning for practice, in which he was seventh fastest.
The Brazilian was overwhelmed by emotion as he began to address reporters alongside team owner Roger Penske and Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. He wept briefly before gathering himself and continuing. His sister, Kati, who also was acquitted of similar charges as Castroneves' business manager, also attended the press conference.
"I just want to hug everybody," Castroneves said. "It's incredible to be back in the car. The best place for me to heal and forget is right here."
Penske, who stood behind his star driver through the trial, said there was never any question about the team's support for Castroneves.
"Until he was proven guilty, there was no reason not to support him," Penske said.
Castroneves remained after the press conference to answer more questions and accept congratulatory hugs from well-wishers.
"So many people sent prayers and messages," Castroneves said. "I never lost faith."
Castroneves was greeted heartily by Team Penske officials and crew members before today's practice session, and his radio transmissions during the practice session were giddy.
"After he got in the car he asked me, 'Is this a dream?'" said Cindric, who also serves as Castroneves' race strategist. "I said, 'No, it's reality. There are a lot of people watching, so don't stall it.'"
After the emotional start to the press conference, Castroneves' trademark humour surfaced: "I'm just glad to be hearing words like 'pit this lap.' I've had enough of 'objection,' 'sustained' and 'overruled.'"
Before the press conference, Castroneves and his sister huddled with Penske and exchanged hugs and congratulations.
"There's not a bad bone in his body," Penske said of Castroneves.