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 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
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.
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
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
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
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.