Emerson Fittipaldi is one of the most infleuntial figures in increasing international flavor of the Indianapolis 500. The charismatic Brazilian’s highly successful “second career” as an Indy car racer blazed a trail to America for many other South American and European drivers.
In just his fourth Formula 1 race, Fittipaldi won the 1970 United States GP at Watkins Glen at age 24 to set the record as the youngest winner of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. He held that mark for almost 22 years, and he claimed two F1 World Championships by age 27. But after forming his own team in 1976, his fortunes in F1 plummeted and he retired from driving following the 1980 season.
The Fittipaldi F1 team folded at the end of 1982, and by 1984, Fittipaldi grew restless. He accepted an offer to race in the Long Beach Grand Prix Indy car race, and made his first start in the Indianapolis 500, driving a pink car to a 32nd place finish.
Fittipaldi had actually tested an Indy car at the peak of his F1 career. In 1974 and ’75, he drove for McLaren, which also fielded entries in the USAC Indy car series.
“In September 1974, I drove Johnny Rutherford’s Indy 500 winner at Indianapolis,” Fittipaldi said. “I liked the car very much, but because the car was very fragile, I decided not to race it. I drove two days and went quite fast. My style of driving allowed me to adapt very quickly to high-speed corners. Johnny was very good to me, and A.J. Foyt was there as well. They took me around and showed me the track. The car had big wings, lots of downforce and a lot of power – about 1,000 horsepower.”
Having embarked on the second stage of his career, Fittipaldi showed enough in his first few Indy car starts that he was hired by veteran team owner Pat Patrick in late 1984 to replace injured driver Chip Ganassi. That was the start of a very successful five-year partnership between Patrick and Fittipaldi, who scored his first CART-sanctioned race win at Michigan Speedway in 1985.
Fittipaldi was not the first foreign driver to pursue a career in America racing Indy cars. But as a two-time F1 champion, he was the most notable. His success in the second half of the 1980s blazed a trail for a wave of international talent, including Brazilians such as Mauricio Gugelmin, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.
Fittipaldi was also instrumental in introducing Philip Morris and its Marlboro brand into Indy car racing. Marlboro sponsored Fittipaldi at Patrick from 1985-89 and followed the driver to Penske Racing beginning an association that lasted through 2009.
Once established in America, Fittipaldi’s annual focus became the Indianapolis 500. He qualified fifth in 1985 and led four times for 11 laps, but finished 13th. He was seventh in 1986 and second in 1988.
The breakthrough came in 1989 when Patrick Racing made a deal to run the current Penske PC18 chassis. Fittipaldi scored five race wins to claim the CART IndyCar championship, including the biggest victory in his career to date at the Indianapolis 500.
Fittipaldi qualified on the outside of the front row and dominated the first half of the race, leading 105 of the first 112 laps. Michael Andretti then emerged as a strong challenger, trading the lead with Fittipaldi until Andretti’s engine blew while he was leading on Lap 164.
The last 35 laps were a duel between Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. The Brazilian led through Lap 195, but Unser caught him in traffic and took the lead in Turn 1 on the 196th tour.
On lap 198, the lead pair continued to work through lapped cars. Fittipaldi dove low into Turn 3 while Unser was slightly blocked by slower traffic. But Emerson’s car couldn’t hold the low line and started to spin up the track. It glanced off Unser’s car, sending it spinning hard into left side contact with the wall.
Fittipaldi, meanwhile, caught his sliding car and drove around Turn 4 to be greeted by the waving yellow flag for Unser’s accident. The race ended under caution, leaving Fittipaldi to collect the first $1 million payday in Indianapolis 500 history.
“Al was much faster down the straights and passed me,” Fittipaldi related. “I was happy when I saw us coming up on traffic. I knew it was my big chance. I tried to leave as much room as I could for him, but we touched wheels. I was very close to losing control but I was able to keep hold of it.
“This means the most to me,” he added. Ever since I was a little boy, I dreamed of winning Indianapolis. I can’t believe it. Today I’m feeling more and more like an Indy car driver.”
“It was just two drivers driving as hard as they could to win the biggest race in the world,” said Unser. “Emmo did as much as he could to avoid the accident without putting himself in an accident.”
Driving for Penske Racing in 1990, Fittipaldi again dominated the early stages at Indianapolis. He led 128 of the first 135 laps, but his car suffered blistered tires in the hot conditions later in the day and he finished third.
Fittipaldi led the 1991 race four times for 46 laps but was knocked out by a broken gearbox. He crashed out in 1992, but in 1993, Fittipaldi was the first driver to win the driver to win the Indianapolis 500 on the re-configured version of IMS that took away the apron inside the turns.
The new narrower layout made it much more difficult to pass, making Fittipaldi’s rise from ninth on the grid that much tougher. He led only once all afternoon, but it was the final 16 laps as he held off pole winner Arie Luyendyk and a charging Nigel Mansell.
Fittipaldi then made a bit of notorious Indianapolis history by initially drinking orange juice in Victory Lane. He finally took a swig of the traditional milk after being advised of his faux pas.
“The whole Marlboro Penske team did a beautiful job,” Fittipaldi said. “You need the best team to win and we had the best team. Everything worked like a Swiss watch. As a driver, this was the best race of my life.
“I drink the milk, but I also drink the orange juice I produce,” he added.
Fittipaldi’s run of dominance at the Indianapolis 500 continued in 1994. The Penske team commissioned a new engine, built by Ilmor Engineering and called the Mercedes-Benz 500I. This was a clean-sheet racing engine built to USAC’s so-called “Stock Block” specifications that mandated pushrods and overhead valves.
Development of the 500I engine was a closely guarded secret and it took many by surprise when it appeared at Indianapolis in the back of Penske’s usual three entries. The 3.4-liter engine produced more than 1000 horsepower, about 200 more than the typical 2.6-liter “racing” engines of the time.
Penske teammates Al Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi qualified 1-2 and once again Fittipaldi showed he liked to lead. He was out front for 145 laps and was threatening to put teammate Unser a lap down when he crashed in Turn 4 with just 15 laps to go.
“I’m very disappointed,” Fittipaldi said. “It was a shame. Everything was under control. The car, she was flying.
“It’s the third time I’ve been leading and something happened,” he added. “It seems that for my wins here, I have to be striving and then I can win.”
Unfortunately, Fittipaldi never got another chance to win again at Indianapolis. In 1995, back in a Penske with a standard Mercedes-Benz engine, Fittipaldi and Unser and the Penske team sensationally failed to qualify for the 500. “It’s very disappointing to everyone, but that’s life,” Fittipaldi said. “These experiences make you more mature.”
Emerson’s Indy car career ended in August 1996 when he came close to being paralyzed in a crash at Michigan Speedway. But he remains a key international ambassador for the Indianapolis 500 and Indy car racing.”
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