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May 23, 2012  |   By Jan Shaffer

Fittipaldi blazed trail for Brazilians to follow at Indy

In 1984, Wally Dallenbach, the PPG Indy Car World Series chief steward, was conducting the drivers’ meeting at the Long Beach opener. One of his usual starts was to introduce new drivers to the others.

“I think you all know Emerson Fittipaldi,” he said.

“What color is your car?” blurted a voice, and everyone laughed.

Emmo just smiled. His car, fielded by Jose Romero of Miami, was pink.

Two-time Formula One World Champion Fittipaldi had come out of retirement to drive Indy cars and had never been on oval tracks. After Long Beach, it was on to Phoenix and an awakening.

“I knew there would be turbulence,” Fittipaldi said. “If you have six, seven cars together, it’s all draft. That was a challenge.”

But Fittipaldi was serious and stayed an extra day at Phoenix to test on an oval.

“I had a great change,” he said. “I learned more about the setup of the car with all that speed. I ran a lot. It took me awhile to get used to the turbulence. That is the challenge for Rubens (Barrichello) this year.

Barrichello comes to the Speedway after a long career in Formula One and even has a win in the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. He follows a long line of Brazilians who followed the pioneering Fittipaldi to the Brickyard.

“A short oval is the opposite of a big oval,” Fittipaldi said. “In the rookie test, a driver has a chance to understand speed. You have to go step-by-step there (at Indy). The three-abreast start didn’t bother me. You just have to go through the procedure of what you‘re trying to do during the race.”

Fittipaldi made 11 starts at Indy and won in 1989 and 1993.

Then came Raul Boesel in 1985, who met Dick Simon in a New York restaurant, flew to California with him, stayed at his home for a time, then drove one of his race cars. He has a best Indianapolis finish of third in 1989 and best start of second in 1994.

Fellow F1 champ Nelson Piquet came. So did Mauricio Gugelmin, who finished sixth in 1995. Helio Castroneves became a three-time winner with victories in 2001, 2002 and 2009 and became known as the “Spiderman” for climbing the fence in celebration after a triumph. For his first win in 2001, Brazilians claimed five of the top 10 positions.

Airton Dare was eighth in 2001. Bruno Junqueira took the pole in 2002, and Felipe Giaffone finished third that year. Gil de Ferran won in 2003 and now serves on the ICONIC committee that formulated car specs for the new IZOD IndyCar Series machines.
Tony Kanaan has finished second in 2004 in 10 starts. Vitor Meira was second in both 2005 and 2008. Christian Fittipaldi, Andre Ribeiro and others, Fittipaldi finishing second in ‘95.

In 2002, seven Brazilians made the field. On Miller Lite Carb Day, they all suited up early and went out on the front stretch with a soccer ball to the delight of the crowd as some well-wishers displayed a huge Brazilian flag. Castroneves started to climb the fence, the crowd roared, and the other six climbed the fence with him.

Since Fittipaldi made his inaugural start, a generation has gone by for aspiring Brazilian drivers. Ana Beatriz will make her third start in the 500-mile classic and is the only Brazilian woman to start the race.

“I was watching it already when I was 4 years old,” she said from Gasoline Alley. “It’s always meant a lot. When I was growing up, we had Fittipaldi in Indy and (the late Ayrton) Senna in Formula One. I paid attention to both.

“Now I’m happy I chose Indy cars. I was in Europe testing Formula 3s and came here to Indy Lights. It was my first experience with ovals. They were so fast, and the walls were so close. Then I got to understand it and fell in love with it. The other thing that helped me a lot is, my manager, a former Penske driver (Ribeiro).”

It was an adaptation to the ovals, but the Brazilians have done well for themselves.

“Helio has won so many times,” Beatriz said. “We all came from a road-racing background, but we’ve been able to adapt well. I like the speed of the ovals. The race is so closed and so mental. Traffic and strategy are huge things.”

Back in the early part of Fittipaldi’s career, he was relaxing along the pit wall at Phoenix and was asked if any other F1 drivers wanted to run Indy.

“Senna wants to do it,” Fittipaldi said. “The other guys, they said the walls are too close and it’s so fast and what are you doing there?” His voice drifted off.

Today, he feels good about the experience.

“It’s good for us (the Brazilian drivers),” he said. “I’m very proud to have started it.”