Nearly a week has passed since Roberto Moreno found new speed, a day after eking out a tenuous final row spot in the starting grid of the 91st running of the Indianapolis 500. Although Moreno failed to move up from row eleven his re-qualification run supported his contention that for him the best may be yet to come.
"If you see, my fastest time on this track this year has been in qualifying. So I improve myself, the team improves the car and we keep getting quicker. And there’s still more to come." Moreno is a cagey veteran better known in Brazil as a Formula One driver. His previous appearances in Indianapolis were in 1986 when he started 32nd but finished 19th, and in 1999 when he started 23rd and finished 20th.
The smart money, if it’s on a Brazilian – and a lot of the smart money should be – will likely be wagered on iron man Tony Kanaan, or on Hélio ‘Spiderman’ Castroneves. Hélio’s moniker was gained through his celebratory climbing of the chain-link fences which separate fans from the track in Indianapolis following his back-to-back victories in 2001 and 2002. The chatter among the media is that this could be Tony’s year.
There are thirty three drivers in eleven rows of three drivers each in the starting grid. Kanaan, qualified in the 2nd position in row one next to Pole sitter Castroneves, has never started farther back than row two in Indianapolis as a fifth fastest qualifier, and he is generally believed to be the best driver never to have won the crown jewel of Formula Indy.
Castroneves and Kanaan qualified early, two-weeks ago in a new Indianapolis 500 format which only allows eleven drivers to qualify each day on Saturday and Sunday of the first qualifying weekend. Meira qualified that Sunday, as the 19th fastest starter, as car one in the seventh row.
Moreno first qualified the following Saturday, but then re-qualified on "Bump Day," so named because the slowest qualifiers can literally be bumped from the field by anyone who can field a faster car. His better speed the second time around ensured that Moreno would not be eliminated from the field.
With additional time for preparation the Penske, Andretti-Green and Panther racing teams for which Castroneves, Kanaan and Meira drive have had plenty of time to change their car ‘setups’ from qualification trim to racing trim. The difference is significant.
"There are really two races," said Castroneves. "We won the first race, which is qualifications, but now that’s over. We have to go out and win the second on race day." For Panther Racing the first competition was an unexpected exercise in futility.
Over the past three years Meira has qualified on average better than seventh and, on average, finished he race in sixth place. In his first and only other start at Indianapolis in 2003, he qualified 26th but finished twelfth. No one doubts Meira’s talent as a driver and although Vitor would prefer to be in the first three rows the fact that he’s running under the radar this year may play to his advantage.
Following a stellar year in 2006 with Meira behind the wheel, Panther Racing Team fortunes were on the rise. "When I first arrived at Panther (from Rahal-Letterman after the 2005 season) we had five guys working in the shop and I mean that included the owner. I learned that you need to give 100% and ask everyone else to give 100%."
"Results really matter" said Meira "because with results … we came from (being only) one car to here in Indianapolis three cars. So it shows that people look and not because our car is bright orange." Meira has tallied a bundle of second place finishes in his four-plus year Formula Indy career, including one at Indianapolis in 2005, but never a first.
The winning edge is slim, and it consistently goes to the ‘big three’ teams, Penske, Target Chip Ganassi and Andretti-Green because the ‘big boys’ have bigger wallets and greater access to other resources. In the last 24 Formula Indy competitions the winner has come from the first two rows 23 times, usually from one of the big three teams.
Meira is likely the best driver not on one of the big three teams. His solid performances have been a staple at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since his arrival in Formula Indy. The fact that Brazilians have won three Indianapolis 500 competitions since 2001 from the fourth and fifth rows tells Meira that he can win, but he knows it won’t be easy.
"The further back you are the more you have to be careful on the first laps because it’s a lot of turbulence, and anything that happens in front of you … you’re gonna go right through it. If you protect yourself on the first two laps … if you have a good solid car … you will be good." Unable to pinpoint why they were unable to find more speed, Meira and Panther scuttled an early search for qualifying speed to focus on racing-trim setup.
"If you have a shot for the Pole you should really be working for that. But if you don’t have a shot for the Pole forget about it, work on the race setup because that’s what really matters, and that’s what we were doing (during qualifications)." Qualifications clearly went much more smoothly for Castroneves and Kanaan.
After finishing in the top-ten in each of his first five appearances at Indianapolis, an accident consigned Castroneves to an uncharacteristic 25th place finish in 2006. "Last year was just very frustrating" he said, and "I do have very high expectations to turn that around". Starting from the Pole position is not a bad first step, but Hélio doesn’t see himself as the favorite.
"No … definitely not, there are at least 10 cars that have pretty much the same equipment, (and) the guy that is leading might be in trouble because he has no draft." Drafting is the practice of running in less turbulent air by remaining close on the tail of the car in front of you.
Kanaan is not anxious over losing the Pole, and has said he has no plans to press Hélio for the lead at the start of the race. "If it happens that an opportunity presents itself to take the lead at the start of the race then of course I’ll take it, but that’s really not something I think we should worry about."
The first six cars, in Tony’s estimation are ‘a cut above’ at this point. "It doesn’t matter whose gonna lead lap 90 or 95 (out of 200) so we’re gonna play along and pull away. The less cars you have with you, the better chances you have. I think you’re gonna see a clean fight and a lot of lead changes because we’re gonna be drafting and try to pull away."
Tony was asked if Andretti-Green has gained ground on Team Penske, which won at Indianapolis with Hélio in 2001 and 2002, with another fellow Brazilian, Gil de Ferran, in 2003, and with Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
"I think it’s obvious that we did. I was expecting that. Over the winter we worked really hard on improving where we lacked, so I would say yes, we’re closer. Are we better (than them)? We’ll see. You gotta be there on the last lap, that’s all it is. There are so many things that can happen".
I asked Tony if he was aware that the three Brazilian new millennium victories at Indy had come from the fourth and fifth rows. "I never worry about statistics" he responded.
"I remember someone told me back in 2004 that the winner of the Homestead race had (always) won the championship. I never did (win at Homestead), but then I won the championship.
And the other day somebody told me that the number eleven," the number on Tony’s green and white seven-eleven car, "had never won Indianapolis and I said ‘well it will be the first time then’, so it’s always a first time for us to make a fact."
"To be honest with you I don’t mind what the history says. I think I have a pretty good shot. I’ll keep starting (in) the top three because I think you have a lot better chance, but we’ll see. I think we have a good car."
Does Tony think he has the best car? "I can’t judge what’s the best car, it’s the best for me, so we’ll see what’s gonna happen. I feel its one of the best but (laughing out loud) probably because its mine."
Tony is long overdue for a victory at Indianapolis, and no one will be surprised if he wins. I’d met his sister Karen there in 2003 and wondered if his family might be in the stands if this year he gets to honor tradition at the brickyard (the track was once all paved bricks) by drinking milk from the winner’s circle.
"My mom comes you know to America. She doesn’t handle the races really well, she gets so nervous. My sister came here once, back in 03 when I had my arm hurt, and they (my family) don’t deal with the pressure of the race really well. I think they watch it better from the TV". You might want to tune in too, on Sunday afternoon on ABC: there’s a pretty good chance that Brazilians will be throwing a party to honor another winner, and his name might be Tony Kanaan.
Other Tidbits from the Track
Both the Kanaan’s and the Moreno’s are planning on becoming American citizens, but neither plans on cutting ties with their homeland. Roberto told me they always look forward to returning to Brazil to spend holidays with family.
Moreno is also planning a name change. The driver’s name is typically painted along the outside edges of the car’s cockpit and on Moreno’s car there are already two names … Roberto Moreno and his new name-to-be, Bobby More. But a Brazilian flag is painted alongside each.
The Kanaan’s are expecting a baby. Tony tells me "I have a green card and my wife has a green card. We’ll be American citizens soon in probably couple of years now, and I love this place, I call it my second home. But I always go back to visit my good friends in Brazil because it’s still my home country.
The "pilotos brasileiros" and the local Brazilian population of Indianapolis have been forging a relationship. Thursday evening Vitor Meira met local Brazilians, and all were welcome, at a new Brazilian restaurant in the area. This afternoon Tony and Hélio took turns spending time with the local Brazilians at a pre-assigned location adjacent to the garage area at an event dubbed "Brazil day at the track."
Any of you listening to XM satellite radio this Friday afternoon may have heard this Brazzil Magazine reporter interviewed on the history and current prospects of Brazilian drivers at the Indianapolis 500, and regarding my organization – Rhythm of Hope in Brazil – which works with programs helping favela (slum) programs in Salvador, Bahia.
Phillip Wagner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phillip is a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine and the founder of Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, an organization which works to assist grassroots social programs serving excluded black favela (slum) youth in the Afro-Brazilian cultural epicenter of Salvador, Bahia. Phillip received his Masters Degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from Indiana University in 2006 at the age of 56 and is currently enrolled in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the same school. At http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm he maintains personal we pages which complement the pages of ROHB at http://www.rhythmofhope.org.