HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- There was the typical air of optimism and eagerness at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the IndyCar Series teams gathered Tuesday for their first official day of testing for the 2009 season.
Yet something didn't feel quite right. One of the series' brightest personalities was noticeably absent from the paddock and press conferences.
Instead of shaking down his famous No. 3 Penske Racing Honda, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, 33, is spending the week a few miles away at his Miami home -- preparing to go to trial Monday on federal tax evasion charges."I hope he can prove what he's trying to prove and he can come back and make all of us laugh," said fellow Brazilian and longtime friend Tony Kanaan. "You think as a series as well, we need him. He's a personality, he's a character. He's just Helio and if he doesn't come back we're definitely going to miss that part."
"I'm sad at what's going on and I definitely don't like to see him in that position no matter what the outcome of what is going to happen to him."
Castroneves is free on $10 million bail and could face more than 30 years in jail if convicted on all counts -- which include charges he failed to report more than $5 million in income from1999-2004.
The serious nature of the situation is in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky Brazilian with the wide smile who won over America first with his trademark Spiderman-like victory fence climbs and then as the smooth-moving champion of the "Dancing with the Stars" television series.
On his website, Castroneves reiterated his innocence and has thanked fans -- in Portuguese and English -- for their support.
"It is extremely hard to know everyone is here (in Miami) and I am not there," Castroneves posted Tuesday on heliocastroneves.com. "We may start the season a little late, but I will always be ready behind the wheel."
In a previous update, Castroneves assured, "It's getting kind of busy, but everything is going in the right direction in my case."
Only a few weeks ago, he stood alongside his Penske Racing team in Indianapolis as it introduced his substitute, Australian Will Power. Team president Tim Cindric reaffirmed the team's commitment to Castroneves since he "hasn't been found guilty of anything yet."
And he promised the No. 3 is Castroneves' car should he be cleared. But Powers is handling the preseason testing -- he was fifth-fastest on Tuesday's speed chart - and will take over one of the most prestigious jobs in racing should Castroneves not be cleared.
"We're going to stand behind Helio and in the meantime, we're going to get ourselves as prepared as we can be to go win races this year," Cindric said.
The topic was obviously -- and understandably -- awkward for Castroneves' competitors on Tuesday. Several, including Marco Andretti and his Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe, said they have kept in touch with Castroneves.
"I've never talked about his case, I just give him support as a friend," Briscoe said.
Kanaan, who has raced against Castroneves for decades, said he hasn't spoken with him in months.
"In these types of moments, the best thing to do is leave the person alone and let him deal with the issues he has," Kanaan said, adding, "Myself, I will miss my reference that there was a guy I raced against all my life and every single time we were on the race track, he raised my game and I raised his game."
The trial is expected to last about 20 days, which would put its ending only days prior to IndyCar's April 5 season-opener on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg.
The series has also been publicly supportive of Castroneves, acknowledging that there is a large personality and competition void without him. Not only is he a perennial championship contender (he finished runner-up in 2008), but he is among the most popular drivers in series history.
"We wish Helio the best ... we would love to not have had this happen," said Terry Angstadt, president of the IndyCar Series' Commerical Division. "But we're going to focus on the things we can control and improve ... and look forward to hopefully Will having a good experience for however long that exists for him."
As for Castroneves, Briscoe summed up the feelings of most.
"We have our fingers crossed for him."