CHAMPCAR/CART: Rio reflections

These are the personal reflections of a friend who was at Rio -- Jack ===================================================== I'd been interested in volunteering for the Rio race since last year not only did several of my friends go in...

These are the personal reflections of a friend who was at Rio -- Jack

=====================================================

I'd been interested in volunteering for the Rio race since last year not only did several of my friends go in 1996, but the track looked so intriguing even on TV that I really wanted to see it for myself. So on May 6th I began the long trip to Rio via Denver and a 6 hour wait in Miami airport (yawn).

Those of us who hadn't been there last year had been told all about the hardships that awaited us: the incredible heat and humidity, the crazy track schedule, the inedible track food, the one accessible souvenir stand with overpriced merchandise, the language barrier with the local workers and the military everywhere with machine guns. Boy, were we surprised! This year we actually did get 15 minutes of beach time, along with a trip to see what we affectionately renamed "Flat Tow Jesus" atop Corcovado mountain. (The usual worker hand signal for "flat tow" is very similar to the arm positions on the Christo Redentor statue -- no offense meant to anyone!) The heat was bearable, the track food plentiful and good if a little monotonous (I dream of the fresh papaya we had for breakfast; but I may never eat ham and cheese sandwiches again), and because there were 20 North American observers instead of last year's 12 there was no language barrier at the stations if you dont count translating between Canadian and American! Lots of good souvenirs available, and not a machine gun in sight. One of the "Pioneers" said the improvements were miraculous, but we rookies figured theyd been feeding us a line all last year about how tough it was. :-)

On Thursday we did a landline check and got our assignments. I was asked to work at 3A (the short chute before the second tight turn) with one of the guys I usually work with at Michigan Speedway. I thought 3A was super-tough! its flat out for the cars and the sight lines through the chain link fence are rotten, plus the paving is full of "shiners" that look like pieces of metal at first glance. But I couldn't beat the locale, especially when it was 40F and pouring when I left home.

On Friday afternoon, one of the other rookies and I switched places between 3A and 4 (the second tight turn, with that new tire wall) for one of the 45 minute practices. I couldnt believe the difference although the stations were no more than 1000 yards apart. At 4 the cars slow incredibly, then make almost a road course "carousel" turn past the station. I guess they donut call Rio a "roval" for nothing.

One of Saturdays highlights for me was a PPG Pace Car ride. I came back with a HUGE grin and a big respect for the racers, and the walls, at the Rio track. Not to mention the pace car drivers; how can they drive so well and so fast while keeping up a conversation with the passenger about what's going on at that particular point in the track? The two tight turns really do "suck you in" because they are so flat and are decreasing radius. And did you know that the front straight at Rio is the longest at any oval in use today? I was amazed when the pace car driver told me that the CART cars do 100 mph more down that straight than we were doing in the hotted up BMW. Even at the slower speed (we did 130 mph down the straight) my neck hurt after two laps.

We even enjoyed the qualifying, which at ovals happens one car at a time so is usually boring. There were plenty of fans in the stands and every time a Brazilian driver came out they would hoot and holler. When Moreno nabbed the pole they went wild, and the shopping mall some distance away from the track set off a huge bunch of fireworks. After much broken Portuguese, gesturing and drawing pictures I understood from our security worker that the mall had set up huge TVs for people to watch qualifying if they couldn't go to the track. I guess they used up all their fireworks on Pupo, because when Big Mo took the pole we didn't see any more. But the cheering was deafening, including from our security guy!

Raceday was actually not as strenuous as I expected because there were no support races, which gave us quite a bit of down time after the warm up. A great chance to use up those leftover Brazilian reals at the souvenir stands or hang out in the shade. My partner at 3A and I had discovered Coco Locos (chilled green coconuts opened with a whack of a machete and two straws added) so we got a couple of those and settled down in the shade by the safety trucks to watch the people. If you didn^t know better youd think all women in Brazil wear great tans, high heels, Spandex and little else. My partner also had his "10 minutes of fame" being interviewed by local radio on his impressions of Rio and the race; the interviewer told him hed been heard (in translation) by 40 million young Brazilians, which blew him away.

Finally the big event. I was really nervous. And then the darn race seemed like itd never begin! Every time wed get a restart or a couple of laps in and start to get in the groove, another yellow. But we made it through the day intact, which is more than I can say for many of the cars. But the tire walls did their job, and there were no driver injuries.

Later that night when we boarded the flight home I realized I wasnt a Rio rookie anymore. I now have my own memories to add to the Rio folklore and here are a few of them to whet your appetite in case you ever get to Rio: 43 (its a drink) and Guarana (another drink -- but don't drink them together!) "Pit", the purple-haired race mascot pedestrian overpasses built of scaffolding and local rough lumber (2" thick mahogany!) . Varig (airline) girls, Jovem Pan (radio station) girls, Marlboro girls, Brahma (beer) girls teeny weeny little vans called Towners, same size as a Ford Escort! the comics in the press centre bathrooms the blue, red and lime green grandstands

It was great to be in Rio, I loved the city and the people and I know way more Portuguese now -- "two beers please", "Station 3A clear", "thank you" and "I'll trade you this cap for extra towels" (useful in the hotel). I hope I get to go again!

Jack Durbin indy500@freenet.tlh.fl.us Motorsport News International jackd@motorsport.com (Moderators for "rec.autos.sport.info") Homepage http://www.freenet.tlh.fl.us/users/indy500/index.html

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Series IndyCar