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Brazzil - Sports - May 2004
 

Without Brazil, Indy Is Not the Same

Brazilian drivers Kanaan and Junqueira ended 2nd and 5th at
Indy. Still this was a down year for Brazil. With three consecutive
victories and seven of nine possible top-three finishes in the
three preceding years, how could any fan of Brazilian drivers
at Indianapolis help but expect the dominance to continue?

Phillip Wagner

Kanaan
Brazzil

Picture Despite having four Brazilians qualify in the top eight positions at the 2004 edition of the Indianapolis 500, fans of what had clearly become the most potent and dominating stable of drivers ever at the North American "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" were braced for a letdown. Two of the "boys from Brazil", 25 percent of that stable, were no longer competing. Another, Airton Dare, was also not in the field.

Long-time favorite Raul Boesel retired at the end of 2002, and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Gil De Ferran after the 2003 campaign. Bruno Junqueira would surely pick up some slack, returning to Indianapolis after a year away from the event. And Vitor Meira, the pride of the Brazilian capital, had been a threat since arriving in Formula Indy nearly two years ago.

By and large, most Brazilian drivers are too focused on competing to dwell on national pride, particularly during track practice, qualifications, pre-race preparations and the big event. While some of the Brazilian drivers identify more closely with their homeland and/or are more outgoing, national identity is a distraction that they save for post-race celebrations when the flags and banners replace oil slicks and protective barriers in their mind's eye.

But the fans have a different perspective. With Junqueira, "Baiano" Kanaan, young Meira and the effusive Castroneves starting from the 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th positions, in a field of 33, could there be a problem?

Expectations

Expectations often determine satisfaction with results, and the expectations for Brazilians at Indianapolis had become unrealistic. Brazilians hadn't just competed there in recent years, they owned it! Paraphrasing my own 2003 race recap:

"In 2001 Brazilians accounted for five of the top-ten finishing positions (1, 2, 5, 8 and 10). In 2002 three Brazilians finished in the top-ten (1, 3 and 10). And now, in 2003, they completed an improbable sweep of the top three places in such matter-of-fact fashion that a national media reporter asked then two-time defending champion Castroneves to describe his disappointment after finishing in second place behind teammate and fellow countryman Gil de Ferran".

A second place finish at Indianapolis would be a career defining moment for most drivers. But the Brazilians had just captured a third consecutive victory and, in the process, had captured seven of nine possible top-three finishes in a three year span at Indianapolis.

Even pre-race entertainment projected another Brazilian win. An Indy track press release announced that "Tony Kanaan passed Scott Dixon to take the checkered flag in a pre-Indianapolis 500 video game simulation conducted by Codemasters in celebration of … the upcoming release of (the) IndyCar Series 2005 video game". Fans of Brazil could be forgiven for expecting the domination to continue.

But this year's field of Brazilians was not as deep as it has been in recent years. Felípe Giaffone, perhaps the most underestimated Brazilian "pilot", was back, but starting from the 25th position and probably still recovering from a serious injury suffered in another race after Indianapolis last year.

Felípe seemed poised to challenge the premiere Penske team of Hélio Castroneves and De Ferran, and Tony Kanaan, last year, but fell victim to mechanical problems that earned him an early exit. Felípe is the only Brazilian other than the previously mentioned "gang of four" to qualify this year.

Opening Salvos

Tony Kanaan quickly improved on his 5th place qualifying position to move into 3rd. Castroneves did likewise, parlaying an 8th place start into 5th. Junqueira, meanwhile, slipped from 4th to 6th and Meira from 7th to 9th.

Mixed signals or a clear indication that a pattern established by De Ferran, Kanaan and Castroneves would continue, albeit minus the defending champion? An early yellow caution flag, triggered when A.J. Foyt Jr. tagged an outside wall, froze the running order and reminded me that Brazilians have largely avoided attrition at Indianapolis. Was that the key?

Clearly the Brazilian drivers are talented, but they've been blessed to get rides on exceptional teams and surviving to the end is what makes it possible to join in the sprint to the finish. When the yellow flag was lifted on lap 16 Castroneves vaulted two places to 3rd, dropping Kanaan to 4th. Junqueira slipped to 10th and Meira 13th.

By lap 22 Castroneves had nudged his way into 2nd, pulling Kanaan along with him back into 3rd. With two Brazilians in the top three it appeared to be business as usual at Indy, but rain, which had delayed the start of the race by more than an hour, brought proceedings to a halt after 27 laps.

Racing Against the Weather

When the track was finally dry enough for a restart the die was cast. Brazilians were clearly in the hunt, but not dominating. Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon had qualified in the number one and two positions, and both were driving as aggressively as Kanaan and Castroneves. The spell was finally broken when, following the 180th of 200 laps the race was called as rain once again moved in on the track.

Had the race gone the full 500 miles perhaps a Brazilian would once again topped the podium to accept the Borg-Warner trophy. With Tony Kanaan and Bruno Junqueira finishing second and fifth respectively Brazil was certainly in the hunt. Fate, in the form of threatening weather, had conspired against them. But the "boys from Brazil" can continue to hold their head high.

A remarkable run had come to an end; three years of absolute domination by Brazilians at the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" had been overcome. The seemingly infallible Brazilians were once again living in the midst of mortals. What would have been a banner year for the faithful of any other nation was a down year for Brazilians at Indianapolis.

Hats off to Hélio, Gil, Tony, Raul, Vitor, Bruno, Airton and Felípe; you've given us all a great ride over these past four years and raised the image of Brazil by winning respect through your remarkable performances, professionalism and approachability.


Phillip Wagner is a frequent contributor to Brazzil magazine. His current focus is preparing to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University in September of 2004, with a regional focus on Brazil. He has been in Brazil improving his Portuguese and working with social programs.
He is a volunteer Campaign Associate for Oakland, California-based Nourish the New Brazil, which supports President Lula's national zero hunger initiative. He is also the volunteer Bahia Program Development Director for the Rio based Iko Poran volunteer placement organization and a member of the advisory board for the Didá project.
Phillip maintains an extensive website at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm and can be reached at pwagner@iei.net.




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