Brazilian Hélio Castroneves became the first Indianapolis
driver in 31 years to successfully defend
Four Brazilians led the 2002 Indianapolis 500 at one time or
another and they remain on the
fast track in Formula Indy.
Brazilians sneaked into last year’s Indianapolis 500 and
captured five of the top seven places in front of 400,000
unsuspecting race fans at what is known as the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’. This year the Brazilians mounted an
undisguised frontal assault, qualifying in three of the top six spots with Bruno Junqueira taking the pole position. The pit crew of
defending champion Hélio Castroneves dominated a pre-race pit crew competition. Tony Kanaan,
who qualified in the fifth position, added an exclamation point by posting the
fastest speed on a day that tradition has mandated should continue to be called
The word ‘carburator’ isn’t even recognized by most spell-checkers anymore. And carburators haven’t been used
at Indianapolis for as long as anyone can seem to remember. Raul Boesel
qualified third, Hélio Castroneves thirteenth and Gil de Ferran fourteenth. A
sixth Brazilian, Airton Dare only managed to qualify thirtieth in the thirty
three car field, but even the slowest car among the 2002 entries qualified at a
faster speed than the 2001 pole sitter. If the weather would cooperate, ‘a sprint to the finish’ promised to be an apt description for this year’s 200-lap feature.
The controversial nature of the last second dash between Castroneves and Canadian Paul Tracy notwithstanding,
Brazil can hardly lose. Before 2001, Brazilian drivers had gone largely unnoticed at Indianapolis, if not Formula Indy. To his
credit, Raul Boesel consistently presented a good image at Indy. But like so many great drivers, found fortune lacking at the
‘Big oval’. So the extraordinary talent of Brazil’s native sons remained as cloaked as
‘sleeper’ agents in the international
intrigue it has become, but no longer. Brazil has always represented an enormous potential market for Formula Indy, which has
struggled to get attention there. Ironic, since Brazilians drivers have struggled to get attention here.
TV Globo’s marriage to Formula One, coupled with its dominant role among Brazilian media, has never made it easy
for Formula Indy to gain exposure in the Brazilian marketplace. But success finds its own way for creating demand. Several
fans in Brazil had indicated to me, since last year, that they were warming to the idea of splitting their interest and wished the
Indianapolis 500 would be shown there. This year, no doubt owing to last year’s spectacular showing by the young Brazilians, their
wish came true. TV Record International, headquartered in São Paulo, contracted to show the race through Ice Miller, a highly
respected 90 year-old Indianapolis law firm. They no doubt weren’t disappointed.
A bright race day sun warmed the two and a half-mile oval that, for most of the month, had been anything but warm,
or dry. Cold wet rain had caused many practice-days, and the second day of qualifications, to be cancelled. It threatened
the ability for race teams to secure one of the, then nine, still open slots on last chance
‘bump day’. But severe storms rolled
through the day before the race and cleared away any vestiges of bad weather.
Just before the singing of "Back Home Again in
Indiana" and the legendary pronouncement of
"Gentlemen start your engines", a stealth bomber, escorted by F-16 jet fighters, glided over the track. My impression was that it looked like
an extraterrestrial bird of prey. It’s ominous shadow reminded everyone that the international atmosphere surrounding this
year’s event was more serious than it had been in 2001. Finally, a roar of engines enveloped the roaring crowd as thirty-three
sleek, powerful silhouettes sped toward the starters flag; a clean start. But the race nearly had to be restarted. Adrenaline
pumped drivers had spread to nearly unacceptable spacing on their first approach to the start finish line. Even after the start,
race officials considered waving the field back in.
Junqueira jumped out to a quick lead, but almost immediately began to experience problems. Bruno and his team
devised a work-around over the radio and he quickly recovered to set a blistering pace. Raul Boesel, who has perhaps more
experience and name recognition than any other Brazilian driver, also laid early claim as a contender.
When Greg Ray piled his car into a wall on lap 29, the yellow caution flag made its first appearance and Junqueira
pulled in for a pit stop. The gearbox problem that slowed him early had caused his car to stall, and the lead was lost. But
Brazilians Tony Kanaan, Gil de Ferran and Raul Boesel were running third, fifth and seventh at time.
Hélio Castroneves, last year’s winner, quickly rose to ninth. By lap 50, a quarter of the way into the race, Kanaan
was in a 225 mile an hour three-car wide drag race on the straight-a-way fighting for the top spot. South African Thomas
Scheckter held (North) American Sam Hornish Junior and Kanaan at bay. But Kanaan slipped into second two laps later, with de
Ferran, Boesel and Castroneves still in fifth, seventh and ninth. Castroneves moved up to eighth by lap 60, at which time
Junqueira was running twenty-first.
Kanaan inherited the lead on lap 63 when Scheckter took a pit stop, but gave it up on lap 67 to pit his own car. By lap
80 Kanaan and de Ferran were running one and three. As the race neared its midpoint, Brazilian fortunes changed
dramatically. Junqueira’s engine blew, spilling oil onto the track. Tony Kanaan’s car, following close behind, spun on the slick track
and crumpled as it met the wall. So Kanaan, who was leading at the time, and Junqueira, who had won the pole position and
had jumped to an impressive early lead, were suddenly among the first six cars to leave the race. De Ferran moved into
second place by the midway point of 100 laps, with Castroneves still running eighth.
De Ferran inherited the lead after 121 laps when Scheckter pulled in for a tire change, then conceded it to Frenchman
Felipe Giaffóne several laps later to do the same. Pre race talk among race teams had been that wear on the track standard
Firestone tires would be a problem, particularly under the sun. But the tires held up better than expected.
De Ferran had already recovered to third by lap 130, and almost immediately moved into second behind Scheckter.
At lap 142 de Ferran was still in second, Hélio Castroneves had moved into seventh and Airton Dare had climbed all the
way to sixteenth, but Raul Boesel had slipped to twenty-third. Only 58 laps, little more than a quarter of the race, remained.
De Ferran re-inherited the lead at lap 150 when Scheckter again pulled in for a pit stop. De Ferran held that lead until lap 161
when he gave it up to Alex Barron, a San Diego native. That marked the seventeenth lead change among eight drivers in the
race. Three of those, of course, had been Junqueira, Kanaan and de Ferran. It appeared that one more pit stop per driver
would be needed.
South African Scheckter, who had regained the lead, was collected into the track wall before lap 175, caving in the
right side of his car. Frenchman Giaffóne moved in front under the yellow caution flag, and it appeared that de Ferran would
shortly recapture it. But, unbelievably, de Ferran’s car lost a wheel coming out of the pits. Defending champion Hélio
Castroneves, who had quietly been moving up in the field, and decided to gamble that he could finish the race without taking another
pit stop, assumed the lead on lap 178. It was the 21st lead change and he became the fourth Brazilian to lead in the race.
Although his crew resolved his tire problem, de Ferran had fallen to eleventh place. As the race entered lap 187 of
200, the question on everyone’s mind was whether Castroneves could complete the race without another pit stop. If the
answer was yes, we might see the same driver, a Brazilian in his only two appearances
ever at the track no less, in the winner’s
circle for the second straight year. Thirty laps had already passed since his last pit stop. Forty-two laps without a pit stop
would be a surprising accomplishment. Conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done.
As the clock ran down, Castroneves began to stretch his lead. Second place Frenchman Giaffóne struggled to pass
slower cars on the crowded track. Soon there were only 6 laps to go. Castroneves began to slow and Giaffóne threatened to
take the lead. The Canadian, Paul Tracy, slipped past Giaffóne. Tension mounted as Tracy pulled alongside Castroneves
with barely more than a lap to go. Approaching the final lap Tracy appeared to take the lead. But there was an incident on the
track behind the leaders. The yellow caution flag was waving as the pass occurred, and it was disallowed. Track officials
motioned Castroneves back into the lead and he crossed the "Brickyard’s" start-finish line as the provisional winner.
De Ferran finished tenth, Dare thirteenth and Boesel twenty-first. All in all, another remarkable showing by Brazilians
driving their way into the hearts of North American racing fans. Especially considering the misfortunes Junqueira, Kanaan and
de Ferran. As Brazilian soccer fortunes have waned, their Formula Indy fortunes have risen. Perhaps Rubens Barrichello
should consider trading in his Formula One credentials for Formula Indy opportunities where, apparently, Brazilian drivers are
encouraged to compete to win. We’ll see Rubens here in any case when Formula One returns to Indianapolis in September.
Phillip Wagner is a free-lance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to Brazil and a regular contributor to
Brazzil. Phillip’s focus is on Brazilian culture and "constructive social engagement" that helps Brazilians to become self-sufficient.
Phillip is a 1979 graduate of Indiana University and resides in Indianapolis; visit his Brazil Web Pages at