BRAZILIAN DRIVER BACK IN THE SADDLE IN TEXAS TEST JUST 19 MONTHS AFTER ACCIDENT DALLAS (March 25, 2008) -- After being out of a race car for more than 19 months while recovering from a critical 2006 accident, championship-winning race car ...
BRAZILIAN DRIVER BACK IN THE SADDLE IN TEXAS TEST JUST 19 MONTHS AFTER ACCIDENT
DALLAS (March 25, 2008) -- After being out of a race car for more than 19 months while recovering from a critical 2006 accident, championship-winning race car driver Cristiano da Matta didn't mind waiting another two days before his highly anticipated return to competitive driving in a test with GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing last week in Texas.
Nearly 24 straight hours of rain washed out da Matta's scheduled test last Tuesday and Wednesday at the new Eagles Canyon race track Northwest of Dallas, but the delay didn't bother da Matta in the least. After his devastating testing accident at Road America in August of 2006 when his Champ Car hit a wandering deer at full speed, da Matta persevered through several surgeries and months of grueling rehabilitation to literally rebuild him self back into racing shape.
"After what I have been through to get back to this point, what's two more days?" said da Matta, who finally took to the track on Thursday and quickly shook off any doubts -- including his own -- that he was still the champion driver he used to be.
"After the test, I realized 'I still know how to do this, I remember this very well,'" da Matta said. "The biggest thing I felt after the test was just a sense of relief. For me, it was a big, big relief, bigger than big. Even though I had opinions and approval from the best doctors and I felt great in go-karts and even on video games as far as my skills, I still had that last little question mark on my mind. That worried me quite a lot. After being away for so long, and driving being my work and something I like, I was concerned that I would not be able to do it as well."
As a Champ Car and Formula One veteran, da Matta has had little time in sports cars and he and the GAINSCO team had no previous experience on the new 2.5-mile Eagles Canyon track, which was greatly improved by the end of the test on Friday. The mid-week rain storms left the circuit wet and muddy but the track's operations crew did a good job getting the track ready and consistently improved throughout Thursday and Friday.
"Even driving a new car for the first time, that was something that I was able to quickly do, to figure out how it worked, what I need to do, just everything with getting familiar with a new car," da Matta said. "I have the same type of feeling I have always had before and I know exactly what I have to do to get better. The lap times were there and consistent. It was all there for me."
Also there for da Matta at the test was team owner Bob Stallings, reigning Grand-Am Rolex Series Co-Champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty and the entire GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team, including Engineer Kyle Brannan, Team Manager Terry Wilbert and Crew Chief Link Smith. Da Matta's parents Toninho and Maria were also in Texas to see their son's return to driving, and the relief the younger da Matta felt was reflected by his father.
"I feel lighter now," the younger da Matta said. "It was worrying me more than I thought, and for my Dad, it was even bigger. The way I saw my Dad when we finished the test, it was a big relief for him too. The test changed everything."
Gurney, who took the first laps in the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley in Thursday's less-than-ideal conditions picked up on the significance of the test for the entire da Matta family and the GAINSCO team.
"It was a special moment for everybody on the team to see Cristiano take to the race track again after his accident from a year and a half ago," Gurney said. "Both his Mom and Dad were there and you could see how much it meant to them. It was great to get to know Cristiano and his family a little bit better these past couple of days. After a few outings on the race track, it also became obvious to all of us that he had lost none of his speed. If and when a deal comes together, he will make a great addition to this team."
Team owner Stallings has made it known he would love to run da Matta in a second team car, possibly as soon as the May race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and ideally for the remainder of the 2008 season.
"Cristiano has really come along very well," said Stallings, who would pair da Matta with fellow Champ Car Champion Jimmy Vasser. "He had a positive test for us this week. His feedback on the car is outstanding, very crisp and very cogent. He had a good test and I feel very strongly he can develop even more as he learns the Daytona Prototype. He showed us enough to confirm that the comeback has begun. If we can put together the right sponsor package, we can run him full time. Ideally, we will find a sponsor to finish out the 2008 season and contend for a championship in 2009."