Helio Castroneves is being replaced on Team Penske by Australian driver Will Power - at least until the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner's tax evasion trail is resolved.
Castroneves, who has pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy
and tax evasion involving about $5.5 million in income stashed in
offshore accounts, is scheduled to go to trial in Miami on March 2,
just over a month before the IndyCar season begins.
"No question, it's a little bit strange to be in this
situation," Castroneves said Tuesday at a news conference at the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway to announce Penske's hiring of Power.
Castroneves said he was innocent of the charges but would not
say anything else about the case.
"My life is about racing," he said. "I feel very confident
this thing is going to be over and I'll be back in the race car
doing what I love most."
The second Penske driver is Ryan Briscoe, another Australian.
Penske president Tim Cindric said Power, a former Champ Car
star, would handle the winter testing for the car assigned to
Castroneves and be ready, if necessary, to race however long it
takes to resolve Castroneves' legal problems.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of questions about, `What if
this? What if that?"' Cindric said. "But time will determine a
lot of those things, and we probably won't really know those
answers until we know more about it.
"The way I look at it is we have three drivers. We'll determine
who drives which one of those two cars depending on how everything
sorts out," Cindric said.
Power, the Champ Car rookie of the year in 2006 and the winner
of that series' final race after the merger with the Indy Racing
League, was 12th in the IndyCar standings last year. His contract
with KV Racing Technology expired at the end of the season.
Power, who turns 28 the day before Castroneves' trial is
scheduled to begin, said he accepted the job with Penske knowing
there was no guarantee he would race.
"It's a team that has won a lot of championships, a lot of
races, so I'm really looking forward to helping these guys out. I
feel very privileged that they chose me," Power said. "No matter
what the outcome is, I'm very happy to be here. ... No matter what
happens, I'll come out of it a better driver."
Power began racing in Australia and moved to the British F3
series in 2003. He joined Champ Car in 2005 and was sixth and
fourth in series points the next two years. Last year was his first
in the IRL, and he won at Long Beach, Calif., which was the final
Champ Car race after the open-wheel merger was announced and
counted in the IndyCar standings.
He was 13th last May in his first the Indianapolis 500.
The new season opens April 5 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Castroneves, who also won TV's "Dancing With The Stars"
competition in 2007, said he was told the trial would last about 20
days, which could give him enough time to reclaim his spot with
Penske if he is acquitted. His sister and business manager, along
with his attorney, also are charged in the case.
But Penske, known for its meticulous preparation, can't afford
to wait, Cindric said.
"The most important thing for us in 2009 - not only is he our
driver but he's our friend - is to do everything we can to support
Helio," Cindric said. "But under these circumstances, our job is
to make sure in racing we're as prepared as we can possibly be -
that's what our organization is known for, our preparation - and we
need to be sure that we're ready to go and we're ready to win as
many races as we can."
Castroneves won the Indy 500 in 2001 and 2002, two of the record
14 Indy wins by Penske. The team's most recent victory was in 2006
with Sam Hornish Jr., who left for NASCAR last year and was
replaced by Briscoe.