Fittipaldi savors victory

Here's a pop quiz from the 2004 edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Who is the first Brazilian to take an overall win? For that matter, who is the first NASCAR driver to cop the Rolex watch awarded to the victor?

Christian Fittipaldi.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
The answer to both questions is Christian Fittipaldi, the former Formula 3, F3000 and Champ Car standout who now drives for Petty Enterprises in Nextel Cup. While he's only got about 10-15 events on the docket for the 2004 Cup campaign, Fittipaldi did far better than boss Kyle Petty in the twice around the clock enduro.

Petty dropped out early in the going, while Fittipaldi and co-drivers Terry Borcheller, Forest Barber and Andy Pilgrim vanquished a parade of talented Daytona Prototype competitors in a difficult race. With rain prevailing from about 3PM Saturday afternoon until the checkered flags flew, it was a true challenge of man and machine this year and, Fittipaldi admitted, "What a difference from last year.

"The whole team remembers last year," when Fittipaldi, Didier Theys, Borcheller and Barber finished 39th in Bell Motorsports' Chevrolet/Doran. "We struggled down here and I think we managed to run very little. Obviously," Fittipaldi said, "we were lucky in the end, but luck is part of racing."

Conditions for the Bell Motorsports team, which ran a Pontiac/Doran this time were abysmal. Six hours into the Rolex race, Fittipaldi was pessimistic about the team's chances. "I'm not very happy running in the wet. There's very little grip," he noted.

While Borcheller jumped into the lead from the start and held it for the first four laps, the Brazilian thought "it wasn't looking too bright at first. By 10PM we had to baby the car but the guys did a great job, particularly in the last hour and a half. Things went our way this time and it was pretty exciting," he said.

#54 Bell Motorsports Chevrolet Doran: Forest Barber, Terry Borcheller, Andy Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Acknowledging this year's Rolex 24 field was "really competitive," with challenges from NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and Brit Andy Wallace) in the #2 Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet/Crawford until just 30 minutes remained, the Bell group was "really lucky with our motor problems. We were running really hot so we had to do a slower pace than we could." The temperatures in the Pontiac/Doran ran a steady 215-220 degrees, rather than the 180 degrees that would be normal.

This race, he said, has "a special degree of difficulty," as drivers have to battle other cars and the elements over a full day of racing. During the height of the rain, "We were aquaplaning everywhere. I thought the Grand American people made a perfect call when they threw the yellow and red flags."

The height of the competition for Fittipaldi came in the 7-8PM time frame, "when there were 10 cars on the lead lap. That's pretty impressive for a 24-hour race. We had to be quick because others were and we could lose this thing by 30 seconds if we didn't keep it going."

During his CART days, Fittipaldi was known for his prowess in the wet, but he considers this one of the hardest rain races he's ever run. "The first stint we were pretty much under control for our pace of the race. We had to race ourselves and the puddles and go as quick as possible to have a cushion."

#54 Bell Motorsports Chevrolet Doran: Forest Barber, Terry Borcheller, Andy Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

While Fittipaldi's last US-based victory came in 2001 at California Speedway, he hasn't been far from Victory Lane. Racing in the 500 Milas Grand Valaja, the Brazilian kart enduro that started as a joke for experienced drivers to kick back and race for charity, Fittipaldi's team of Mario Haberfeld, Puerto Rican Charles Fonseca (a five-time kart champ) and Fittipaldi bested some of the biggest names in motorsports last November.

The event is held in the evening to the following morning and, this year, took place the day after fellow driver and IndyCar standout Tony Kanaan got married. "I didn't drink at all during the wedding," Christian admitted. "I got very drunk during the [bachelor] party a couple of nights earlier but I really wanted to win the kart race. That was a lot of fun."

Winning is always fun, of course and Fittipaldi is giving some thought now to more endurance racing, as his schedule permits. If the right opportunity comes along, he'd like to take a crack at the June Le Mans 24- hour classic, to add that laurel to his portfolio. Could it happen this year? You never know.