Decades of success in Formula One, and now, Formula Indy, supported
by winning personalities,
are redefining Brazil’s national character
through its love affair with racing. The last three years
changed the face of Brazilian racing history. In Indianapolis,
Brazilians have accounted for 11
top-ten finishes in that period.
On the afternoon of the day before qualifications for the
87th running of the Indianapolis 500, Hélio
Castroneves and Gil de Ferran sat patiently in the sweltering heat of pit road. Castroneves in the cockpit of his gleaming red
and white Marlboro Team Penske Dellara Toyota, and de Ferran in his identically decorated Penske Panoz G
Force Toyota. In each case a Penske crewman shaded the Indy-car pilot before him with a red and white umbrella.
The introspective De Ferran appeared motionless and calm, but the always-spirited Castroneves performed
a sort of choreography with his hands, apparently in rhythm to the music that emanated from speakers around
the track. Suddenly the air split with thunder and spectators came to life as Tony Kannan roared by in his green
and white Team 7-Eleven Dellara Honda. The air was charged with electricity; I felt it ripple through me as Kannan
If you ask just about anyone who knows anything about racing these days, they can tell you that de
Ferran, Castroneves and Kanaan are Brazilian, and two of the three have won at the legendary two and a half mile oval
track at Indianapolis in recent years. If there were nothing more to be said, that would seem enough. Only 60 drivers
have ever won at Indy, with 16 of them combining for 43 of the 87 total victories.
De Ferran’s 2003 victory, which came on the heels of back-to-back wins by Castroneves, marked the fifth
time a Brazilian piloted car had entered victory circle beneath the famed `Brickyard’ pagoda. But acknowledging the
three most recent Brazilian victories only hints at the significance of twenty-five months that have forever altered the
character of Brazilian motor-sports.
The months of May in 2001 through 2003 must now be viewed through a wider lens. De Ferran and
Castroneves have punctuated Brazilian successes and, by doing so, have made a lasting impression that contributes to a
growing Brazilian racing mystique. But they were far from alone, and that mystique has been built on a broader base of
racing prosperity. It isn’t simply that Brazilians have won at Indianapolis for three consecutive years, and it isn’t
simply that the ones who won there have so consistently excelled. Brazilians have accounted for 11 top-ten finishes in
that three-year period. That’s a whopping 37 percent! But they’ve accounted for seven top-three finishes in that
same period, and that’s an astounding 78 percent!
Other Brazilians competing along with de Ferran and Castroneves at Indianapolis in 2001, 2002 and 2003
were Raul Boesel, Bruno Junqueira, Airton Dare, Felipe Giaffóne, Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira. Five Brazilians
finished in the top-ten in 2001. Five Brazilians led the race in 2002. Junqueira and Castroneves each started once from
the pole position. De Ferran might easily have won all three years, and Castroneves nearly did. Giaffóne finished
third in 2002. All of these drivers together have redefined what it means to achieve excellence in Brazilian
motor-sports. And by so doing, they’ve created a kind of mystique that provides a psychological edge and enhances the
likelihood that more Brazilians will be considered candidates for future opportunities in racing.
Each of the "Boys from Brazil" that have competed at Indianapolis in this period owes something to
Emerson Fittipaldi, and to some non-Brazilian legendary names in racing. Let’s begin with the later first. In a general
sense, a mention of the legacy of Tony Hulman and the contributions of Tony George cannot be avoided. Curiously,
the Brazilians were notably the first and most vocal all month (May) in 2003 to credit Hulman and George for
preserving the historic venue that has provided them the opportunity to excel.
I recall that each of the six Brazilians at least once elaborated at a press conference and/or the victory
banquet on the overwhelming sense of history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. De Ferran, Castroneves, Kanaan,
Giaffóne, Dare and Meira seemed almost astonished that the George and Hulman families had exhibited such
determination to preserve that history and carry it forward. So, by Brazilian participant acclamation in 2003, Tony Hulman and
Tony George must be enshrined in the collective memory of Brazilian motor-sports.
Roger Penske, in particular, has earned a blue-collar place in the pantheon of Brazilian racing history. The
legendary Penske has now won thirteen Indy 500 races, that’s just shy of 15 percent of the total number of winning cars.
The five Penske-powered Brazilian wins have all occurred in a 15 year period, accounting for 33 percent of all Indy
500 wins in that timeframe. Another non-Brazilian name likely to be ensconced in Brazilian racing lore is Andretti.
Father Mario and son Michael each competed in Formula One.
Each knew Ayrton Senna, and Michael was a teammate of Senna’s. As a car-owner and teammate to Tony
Kanaan, Michael has contributed to the success of the Brazilian speed-merchant. Kanaan led the 2002 race when his
car hit the wall and finished third in the 2003 closest ever 1-2-3 finish in Indy 500 history. At Michael’s urging Mario
has also mentored Tony, not that a lot of mentoring has been necessary. The feisty Bahian nearly captured the
2003 pole with his arm in a brace. And his qualification run occurred in the face of stiff winds well ahead of the late
afternoon period most suitable for attaining higher track speeds.
Emerson Fittipaldi Paves the Way
All Brazilian success at Indianapolis can be traced back to Emerson Fittipaldi. By twice taking the
checkered flag at Indy he firmly established the credibility of Brazilian drivers in the North American racing formula. But
getting there was a long road that first
defined Brazilian credibility in Formula One. In 1967 brothers Emerson and
Wilson Fittipaldi began building go-karts in Brazil, and racing them.
Their success led Emerson to Great Britain in 1969, where the 24 year old secured an opportunity in
Formula three. In 1970 he graduated to, and through, Formula Two to Formula One. He set the Brazilian racing world on
fire by winning the coveted world title in 1972 and then, according to Brazilian racing historian Oscar Valporto, by
using his newly established prestige "to bring Formula One to Brazil".
When Emerson earned his second Formula One title in 1974, he opened doors of opportunity for other
Brazilian drivers. Among them were his brother Wilson and a young José Carlos Pace, whom Valporto notes "won the
Brazilian Grand Prix in 1975 and was seen as a future world champion". But the growing legend of `Moco’, as he was
known, was cut short when he prematurely died in a 1977 air-crash.
In a day after the 2003 Indianapolis 500 press conference, champion de Ferran responded to a question
from Brazzil magazine by saying that the " tradition of having Brazilian drivers in the forefront of international
motor-sports really started with Emerson. I think it cascaded from there. Emerson inspired a new generation,
which included Nelson Piquet, that inspired yet another generation that included Ayrton Senna".
The First "Fittipaldi Empowered" Generation
Nelson Piquet emerged from Fittipaldi’s shadow to become a racing presence in 1981, when he drove his
Brabham to the Formula One title. Like Fittipaldi he failed to repeat as champion. But also like Fittipaldi, he won again in
his third year, in 1983. Piquet won a third title in 1987, but by then "had to share Brazilian popular affection" with
Senna. Senna was "the man who was to become the country’s greatest ever-racing driver, and for many fans of the
sport, the greatest driver of all time". He arrived in 1984 "with the reputation of a driver who had won all the
European championships he had entered". He lost to Alain Prost in his rain shortened Formula One debut, and for several
years had to compete against opponents with more and better resources.
Valporto notes that Senna gained in stature by "beating
opponents (who drove) cars that were obviously
faster". That gained him an opportunity to join the famed, and well-funded, McLaren team. He won world
championships in 1988, 1989 and 1991. In 1994, on a track in Italy, Ayrton Senna became the second Brazilian motor-sports
superstar to perish in his prime. Formula Indy’s Michael Andretti offered high praise for Senna as a man, whom he got
along well with and called "the best". De Ferran said "Ayrton was certainly the most inspiring If you ever watched
Ayrton drive, it was just an awesome sight. I certainly had the privilege to watch him drive and it was really captivating".
Senna’s successes in Formula One overlapped with Fittipaldi’s first appearances, and greatest success,
at Indianapolis. Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna, together, consolidated Brazilian racing credibility around the globe
with the possible exception of in the United States. Fittipaldi addressed that by winning at Indianapolis at the age of
44 in 1989 and at the age of 48 in 1993. He was driving for the same owner that Hélio Castroneves and Gil de
Ferran drove for while winning in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Roger Penske.
The Penske-Brazilian association doubtless opened the eyes of many Formula Indy fans and owners. There
were already eight Brazilians driving in Formula Indy by 1996 when one of them, André Ribeiro, won the inaugural
Rio 400. But by then an existing rupture in open-wheel racing had led to openly split authorities for Formula Indy in
the United States. The original sanctioning body became the Indy Racing League, or IRL, and the rival faction
became the Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART.
The Rio 400, doubtless founded on interest generated by Emerson Fittipaldi’s success in Formula Indy,
was sanctioned by CART. The talents of Brazilian drivers remained off the radar screens of IRL fans until CART
teams arrived back at Indianapolis in numbers to participate in the
85th running of the Indianapolis 500. Brazilians have
dominated the race since that time. Now a new career path for racing is being established by another Fittipaldi.
Another Fittipaldi Opens Doors
Wilson Fittipaldi’s son, and Emerson’s nephew, Christian, was already competing in Formula One by age of 21.
His career exploded after winning 29 of 51 go-kart races between the ages of 10 and 16. In 1988, at the age of
17, he finished second in the 1988 Brazilian Formula-Ford 2000 Championships. He then became the Brazilian and
South American Formula Three Champion and in 1991 captured the Formula 3000 Intercontinental crown. Between
1992 and 1994 Christian competed in Formula One, but unexpectedly left it to compete in the Formula Indy CART
In 2001 Christian was given an opportunity to test drive a NASCAR Busch Grand National (BGN) car after
returning from a CART race in Australia. He ran as high as
10th in a BGN race later that year and in 2003 left
CART for the NASCAR Winston Cup series, a challenge not previously undertaken by Brazilian drivers. While it
remains to be seen whether other Brazilian drivers will follow in Christian’s footsteps, his current pursuit raises the
intriguing possibility that NASCAR could beat Formula Indy to the punch by gaining a foothold in the Brazilian market.
Racing-passionate Brazil might find the novelty of stock car racing to be especially appealing. Mega-media
giant Globo might be more inclined to promote a racing formula that is so different from Formula One, which it
covets. Given the influence that uncle Emerson has had on the history of Brazilian motor-sports, should we expect any
less from the seemingly even more versatile and exceptionally talented Christian?
Will Brazilian success and fan appeal in the U.S. take IRL to Brazil?
Most, if not all, of the current wave of Brazilian drivers in Formula Indy have advanced together, or followed
one another from go-kart racing through a progression of international racing circuits to Formula Indy. Emerson
Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran and Felipe Giaffóne even represent three generations of Brazilian drivers who started by racing
Brazilians have been a highly visible presence in proving grounds like Formula Ford, Formula Chevy,
Formula Three, Indy Lites and Formula Atlantic. The demise of Indy Lites, which served to prepare drivers for Formula
Indy competition, has been followed by the emergence of the new IRL Infiniti Pro series. Infiniti cars are identical in
size to the Formula Indy CART and IRL machines, but have fewer horsepower. Brazilian Thiago Medeiros of São
Paulo competes in the new series.
A remarkable characteristic of Brazilians in all formulas of motorsports racing is the simple fact that so
many of them remain unassuming and approachable in spite of achieving much success. The Brazilians are in love
with racing and North American fans are embracing their enthusiasm and openness with appreciation. Whether
Brazil will eventually embrace these extraordinarily talented drivers, and Formula Indy, with the same level of
enthusiasm remains to be seen. CART no longer competes in Brazil and IRL has yet to pursue establishing a competition
there. Perhaps that will change following the extraordinary three years of Brazilian domination at Indianapolis
chronicled above. One can only hope.
A final note: When asked if he was aware of his growing place in, and impact on, Brazilian racing history de
Ferran replied " it’s really for all of us to decide, not really for me. All I worry about is doing a good job on Sunday
afternoons and, you know, let the rest follow through."
Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor to
Brazzil and represented Brazzil at the 2003 Indianapolis 500. He
maintains an extensive web site on Brazil at
http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm. He may be contacted