In one of the more inexplicable developments in recent Indianapolis 500 history Panther Racing let go Brazilian Vitor Meira after he finished runner-up in what is arguably the biggest annual race the world over for the second time in only six appearances.
No other single-day sporting event anywhere in the world draws a larger crowd, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 people around the two and a half mile oval. And Meira has been something of a wunderkind.
Other drivers have had greater success in their first six years. Brazilian Hélio Castroneves, for example, won in each of his first two starts at Indianapolis and very nearly won the third. But no one has equaled or exceeded Meira’s success without driving for a top-3 team.
Castroneves drives for Team Penske, which has accounted for 14 wins in the 92 previous Indianapolis 500s, more than any other team. It should be noted that Brazilians Emerson Fittipaldi (2) and Castroneves (2) account four of Penske’s wins.
On the surface Panther Racing might be forgiven for replacing Meira with not one, but two, popular drivers, American Scott Sharp and Britain’s Dan Wheldon, especially considering that Wheldon has previously won the 500 victor. But look more closely.
Wheldon, like Meira, has had six previous starts at Indianapolis. His average starting position is 5.7 in the 33 car field, and his average finishing position 10.2. So although he once won, he has – on average – finished 4.5 places lower than he started.
Meira’s average starting position is only 12.2 but his average finishing position is 7th, nearly five positions better. And Meira has never been fortunate enough to drive for a top-3 team, while Wheldon has started three races each for Andretti-Green and Target Chip-Ganassi, which along with Penske are top-3 teams.
Sharp’s history is even less compelling. In 13 starts he has never finished better than 6th, in spite of the fact that he was the fastest qualifier, the pole sitter, in 2001. His average starting position is 11.3 and his average finishing position is 17th.
Wheldon has earned US$ 3,402.685.00 in his six starts for one of the premiere teams, while Meira has pulled in US$ 2,971,735.00 for second tier teams. Sharp has earned US$ 3,433.229.00 at the speedway but its taken him 13 starts to do that.
Incredibly, while Sharp has sat on the pole and Wheldon twice has started in the first row (of three) from the 2nd position, Meira has never been fortunate enough to start from any higher than 6th, on the outside of row two.
Soft-spoken Meira is model driver and team ambassador, generally regarded as the most agreeable, approachable and even-tempered male driver on the circuit. Venezuela’s Milka Duno captures that crown among the female drivers.
There can be no question of Meira having been let go by Panther for being difficult. On the contrary his work ethic and attitude are exemplary. Though strikingly aggressive on the track his tactics are clean and he is well-respected.
In a year with more than one good storyline involving a Brazilian driver, the best may be what comes of Vitor Meira, now driving the #14 ABC Supply car for legendary four-time Indy 500 champion AJ Foyt, and Panther Racing, which may rue the day it let Vitor go.
Phillip Wagner, a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine, has covered the 500 since 2001. He is the co-founder and director of Georgia based Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, www.rhythmofhope.org, which is actively seeking door support after recently gaining federal nonprofit status. Phillip maintains, and invites Brazzil readers to see, a chronicle of his work at http://rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com/.