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Matos Jump-Starts Career in Trans Am, Aims for Coveted Win at Beloved IMS

He’s known as “Rafa” these days, older and wiser and more settled, happily married with a 3 1/2-year-old daughter.

Being back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway inevitably stirs the desire in Raphael Matos. While much has changed in life, his racing goal hasn’t. All he’s ever wanted was to race in the Indianapolis 500.

“I never forgot how to drive,” Matos said Saturday. “Indy cars might have forgot about me, but I haven’t forgotten how to drive.”

Once upon a time, which seems so long ago, he qualified for his first Indy 500 in 2009. He was a promising, young talent as the NTT IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year. He made the “500” again in 2010, too. Both times he crashed out while exiting Turn 1.

Bumped from his final “500” bid in 2011, a lack of sponsorship brought his 38-race series career to a halt. Since then, the 37-year-old Brazilian has bounced around different series, including stock cars back home, and eventually burned himself out from the travel.

He’s been reborn driving the No. 88 Coleman Motorsports entry in the Pirelli-sponsored Trans Am TA2 Class powered by AEM Infinity. He won the championship in his series debut, and he’s a strong third in the points this season entering the race Sunday as part of the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational at IMS.

“Trans Am is a nice series to race in here in the States,” he said. “You really have to pay attention to details. It’s one set of tires for qualifying and the race. The car has no traction control. It’s all driver. It’s something that really attracted me as a driver. I believe this series is making the right moves to become more of a professional series.”

Matos wanted to stay in the U.S. to keep his racing career alive. And it was important to keep his family close after the birth of his daughter, Julia. They’ve settled in Boca Raton after he lived for years in Miami.

While he makes his home in Florida, he considers IMS his home track.

“My dream was to race Indy cars, right?” he said. “So when I finally made it, you know how much this track means to us drivers. When you finally drive an Indy car around this place, you understand what this car is built for. You get the real sensation for the speed and how big this place is and everything that surrounds the Indy 500. You appreciate that moment.”

Upbeat and optimistic on this bright, sun-splashed afternoon, Matos stared up at the infield Pagoda.

“This is a really special place for me,” he said. “I really love this place.”

Matos was enjoying a storybook return to IMS last year. He had a 19-second lead and seemed destined for victory but was denied when assessed a drive-thru penalty for jumping a restart.

“We were so dominant,” he said. “Things are way more tighter this year, but I think we can get it done. I definitely want to kiss the bricks.”

Honoring such a tradition isn’t the same as doing so after the Indy 500, but it’s a start. That smooch is what Matos has always envisioned as he racked up championships in several developmental series: 2003 Skip Barber Formula Dodge, 2005 Star Mazda, 2007 Champ Car Atlantics, 2008 Indy Lights.

The dream never dies.

“Some of my memories from the old days come back,” Matos said. “This city is amazing, spending time downtown, I have lots of friends here. Everything is breathing racing in Indianapolis. It’s a very special place for me. Who knows, I might be back one day in an Indy car. It’s still a dream.”

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