He sped from go-karting to Formula Three to IndyCar, his big break coming in late 1999 when Penske Racing signed him. He won the Indy 500 two years straight and finished second in 2003 -- milestones for the celebrated race.
''He had the ability to do things that human beings can only dream of,'' his powerhouse lawyer, Roy Black, told a jury in Miami earlier this month. ``This has taken him to the heights of athletic stardom.''
Now the Brazilian driver's soaring career, fueled by the fame of also winning the reality TV show Dancing with the Stars, is at risk of crashing in the most unlikely place: a federal courtroom. Castroneves, 33, stands accused along with his sister and business manager, Katiucia Castroneves, and his Michigan sports lawyer, Alan R. Miller, of cheating the IRS.
In a seven-count indictment, Castroneves is charged with conspiring with them to evade paying taxes on more than $5 million from a Penske contract dating back a decade. Ironically, Castroneves, who owns a Coral Gables mansion decorated with his trophies, has yet to receive any of that income from Penske.
But that's the point of the U.S. government's case against the trio, because prosecutors say Castroneves should have already paid taxes on that income -- regardless of whether he has actually received it. The three defendants are accused of masterminding a tax dodge across two continents so that Castroneves wouldn't ever have to pay the IRS -- especially if he were to move to a tax haven such as Monaco for retirement.
How the 12-person jury will view the charges amid a crumbling economy remains to be seen. But for Castroneves -- a fun-loving guy known for leading cheers with racing fans -- the outcome could not be more serious.