updated 04/19/2009 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 04/19/2009 AT 1:00 PM ET
Less than 24 hours after his acquittal on six counts of tax evasion, IndyCar race driver – and former Dancing with the Stars winner – Helio Castroneves was back behind the wheel of his Team Penske car No. 3 on Saturday morning in Long Beach, Calif., to compete in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“I’m so happy to be here. I can’t stop hugging everybody,” Castroneves, 33, told PEOPLE minutes after completing a practice run, marking the first time he had driven his car in six months. “I was smiling under my helmet the first few laps,” he said about having the wheel back in his hands. “It feels so good to be back.”
Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champ whose fan base increased thanks to his victorious 2007 DWTS turn, received an outpouring of fan support as he walked to the Team Penske hospitality suite to join his family and his girlfriend, Atlanta restaurant owner Adriana Henao, for lunch.
The outpouring of affection and support did not go unnoticed. “So many people sent me messages, sent me prayers, and I never lost faith. It kept me really strong,” Castroneves said, fighting back tears. “It feels like I just woke up from a bad nightmare. Hearing words like object, sustained, overruled – I want to forget the past six weeks.”
Now, Castroneves says, his focus is back on racing. “The best place for me to fix and heal the scars is here [on the racetrack],” he says. “My life is starting over.”