Feeling taxed about Helio

Posted by Iannucci | 10/09/2008 | 5 comments »
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There’s nothing funny about having a two-time Indy 500 winner hauled into Federal court in handcuffs and leg irons, but there is a fair amount of mild amusement to be had at reading the recent reactions of those who’ve been not just shocked but darn near insulted at the prospect that Helio Castroneves may in fact be cheating on his taxes.

Again, not to downplay the severity of the charges or especially the penalties involved – both in court and to a lesser but more likely extent in the racing world – but it’s not terribly difficult to imagine a multimillionaire in any industry trying to cheat towards a financial gain. This isn’t to say everyone in or above Helio’s tax bracket is in fact cheating, but rather that folks at that level of monetary compensation have lots of available influences and opportunities for such shenanigans. Like say agents who help set up Panamanian shell companies.

In the days following the announcement I’ve been marveling that much of what passes for commentary on this sad subject is nothing less than self-examination. Truly, it’s amazing how many people are not only shocked that Helio could possibly be trying to squirrel his money away from the ever-prying fingers of the US Government, but are also all too eager to tell you how and why they are surprised.

"Maybe I’m hopelessly trusting or naive, but this is something I just cannot picture Helio getting involved in knowingly. Trusting an accountant to find legit tax loopholes only to find to his chagrin that some illegitimate ones were employed, yes. Knowingly and intentionally engaging in tax fraud, no." - Someone who is in fact hopelessly trusting and naïve.

"If he has a criminal mind -- a dark side -- I haven't seen it. If he is dangerous, conniving, greedy and deceitful, he certainly has fooled me." - A prominent reporter who is so absolutely flummoxed that he unpacked his adjectives.

"I really hope these tax fraud charges aren't true! Helio is adorable and seems like such a sweetheart. That smile of his is absolutely charming, and I loved watching him on "Dancing with the Stars." Hopefully he doesn't turn out to be just another crook." - Yet another writer who believes criminals are incapable of exhibiting charming smiles.

Despite starting off with some ridiculous comparison to convicted dog-fighter Michael Vick(!), Bob Kravitz gets closer to the real problem here for many of us who follow IndyCar racing, and to a larger extent sports in general, which is we only know that which we see. And since that which we see is usually only a couple of hours on a handful of weekends we should reasonably expect to presume that we don’t know a whole lot.

I've got news: We don't know these athletes. We don't know any of them, not really. We talk to them at news conferences, trade witty bon mots in locker rooms, but we don't really know them. I hear over and over, "So you know Peyton, huh?'' And I answer, "I talk to Peyton, but I don't really know him. I don't know what's in his heart. I don't know what he does when he's not answering dumb questions in a locker room, or how he likes to spend his free time when he's not watching film. And I don't care to, for that matter."

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And that, dear friends, is the source of consternation here. It’s not that we didn’t know this could happen, but that we’ve invested so much in who we want people like Helio to be that don’t want to imagine these drivers that we might think we know as being anything less than outstanding role models. Drivers sign autographs, chat with fans, race around at 200 miles per hour, talk in an animated fashion during interviews, then repeat the process in a different town, and because we’ve seen many of them do this every weekend we’d like to think we know them, that they’re good guys and girls, and that they would NEVER get caught up in criminal activity.

Part of this is because as fans of racing we’ve been spoiled by the comparatively good behavior of our competitors. On any given day it seems you can read about some other type of athlete shooting up a strip club, beating his wife, or getting busted for a drug possession. Sure there’s an occasional DUI (which is arguably a more egregious crime than tax evasion) but for the most part the dependency on sponsorship compels drivers to keep themselves from running afoul of the authorities.

But the truth is these are real people just as capable of breaking the law as anyone, and on the rare occasions they do the story gets plastered everywhere and talked to death by respected journalists and word butchers alike. So while obviously there are numerous detriments associated with the idea of Helio going to jail or Team Penske cutting ties with the talented driver, there is also the subconscious effect of an incremental increase in cynicism among the fans.

Which is why I completely disagree with Robin, who absurdly states that the damage could have been worse.

I would think his career could be in serious jeopardy, depending on what kind of morals clause he has with Roger Penske. But I don't think it's going to hurt IndyCar in the long run. Had he been the 2008 champion, yes, then it hurts on several fronts.

Yes, thank goodness it was 2008 Champion Scott Dixon who charmed millions with his weeks of superlative dancing. And boy, are we lucky that it’s Scott Dixon who’s been asked to host shows for entertainment programming. Yes, if it had been Mr Fun-Tastic Scott Dixon who had a tax issues, boy then that would REALLY present an image problem for the Indy Racing League. Oy.

Seriously though, I know what he’s saying here – that if Helio had been the champ then it would be compounded. But that’s bogus because the ICS championship is rather irrelevant to Helio’s celebrity status. He’s famous for many things and winning the title wouldn’t have suddenly made him more famous or more relevant, and the damage to the league is going to be significant regardless. (Not to be tangential but it would have been more astute to say “Had this been Danica Patrick…”)

Look, you don’t need me to tell you how you feel, because barring the unlikely event of a negotiated settlement to simply write a check this is going to leave a very bad taste in your mouth and you’ll probably not look at Helio the same way again. Seeing news reports concerning possible felonies committed by one of the two drivers who are so recognizable outside of racing as to be one-name personalities is in no way a positive promotion of the sport, a sport tht has enough promotion-related issues thank you very much. It’s possible that should legal problems linger that morbid curiosity might compel people to watch more races in which Helio is entered, but even that idea is far-fetched. I mean, would you watch more drag races if Ashley Force was hauled into court for some white-collar crime? I doubt it.

There remains legal ramifications, racing implications, and all sorts of personal reactions, but just as discouraging as all of these is the total loss of opportunity from a year in which the celebrity value of “Helio” was built up to a level enjoyed only by “Danica”, a level that is backed up not by swimsuit exhibitions but by years of wins and accompanying fence-climbing celebrations. For the first time in nearly 20 years we nearly had a bona fide poster boy for our sport, a talented, squeaky clean, barrel full of giggling monkeys type of guy to represent open-wheel racing not just to sports fans but to people who otherwise wouldn’t care a whit about racing. Now that’s likely all gone, and even though we still (for now) have a driver who can win just about any race and excitedly climb the fence like he did at the Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta last weekend, it’s just never going to be the same.


  1. yaumb // October 10, 2008 8:30 AM  


  2. meeshbeer // October 10, 2008 8:53 AM  

    I read this last night and was just at a loss for words.

    Yaumb just summed it up for me.

    I've been thinking much of the same thing, but couldn't find the words to articulate it.

  3. Too Much Racing // October 10, 2008 11:44 AM  

    Very interesting, thanks Jeff, and well written.
    I hadn't thought about it that way at all. I guess a lot of us just get caught up in the marketed perception rather than the possible reality, no matter how much we kid ourselves that we don't.

  4. Bash // October 10, 2008 3:49 PM  

    I'll second yaumb's description. Sad for Helio, and an opportunity lost for the league. Well thought and written, Jeff.

  5. Goose // October 10, 2008 4:53 PM  

    Very well said. Over the years, I've done my best to not be overly surprised by what these people do. As a result, I've done what I can to just focus on what they do on the field/ice/court/track. However, it still did not totally eradicate the sense of disappointment I felt with this news.