IRL: Indy500: Emerson Fittipaldi thrilled to take another Indy run

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 16, 2000 -- Emerson Fittipaldi was so excited to be back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he awoke at 4:30 Tuesday morning. He didn't know what to do, so as daylight approached he pulled on his running...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 16, 2000 -- Emerson Fittipaldi was so excited to be back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he awoke at 4:30 Tuesday morning.

He didn't know what to do, so as daylight approached he pulled on his running shoes and minutes later was pounding the pavement of the new 2.606-mile road course at the Speedway.

How appropriate that one of auto racing's all-time greats, a two-time World Champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion from Brazil, would be the first to turn a lap on the track that will play host to the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis on Sept. 24.

Later in the day, Fittipaldi was honored as a Legend of the Speedway and took a couple laps around the Speedway's 2.5-mile oval to accept the cheers of the fans. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 and 1993.

"To be honored, to have my day here, is a very special event," Fittipaldi said. "I really appreciate it.

"It was a very strange feeling when I came back last night to Indianapolis. When I landed here, I start driving 465 (Interstate highway surrounding the city), I had my oldest daughter, Juliana, with me and I start thinking how many days and months of my life I spent in Indianapolis. And I appreciate every minute I was here."

When he headed out for his jog, he gazed at the giant posters of the Indianapolis 500 winners around the outside of the grandstands and reflected on how special the Speedway is.

"Historically, since the beginning of the century, last century, to now, there have been so many people sweating, performing, driving to the edge to win here and different generations, different drivers and different nationalities," he said. "I was very proud to be a little part of Indianapolis.

"This time I come back here like a retired driver, because the last time (1995) I was still driving, and it was a fantastic feeling. I know I am a little part of this big historical place in motor racing in the world.

"I had a very strange feeling, because it was 6 o'clock in the morning, and there was really nobody, even the guards were not there, only a few people. It was just getting daylight. And on my mind I was looking at the grandstand to see how many emotions, how many adrenalin to the public, to the drivers, to the team managers, the owners, the sponsor, how much energy put together in this place, human energy."

A couple hours later, Fittipaldi had breakfast with Speedway President and CEO Tony George. He told George that with the addition of the Formula One race, the facility truly can be called the Motor Racing Capital of the World. The Speedway is the only facility in the world to play host to a Formula One, NASCAR Winston Cup and Indy Racing Northern Light Series event.

"When I arrived the first time, I said this is the capital of motor racing in the world, yes, but of Indy cars," Fittipaldi said. "But now it is going to be the capital for racing, for everything.

"It is an unique place in the world, very special, Indianapolis."

Fittipaldi first started dreaming of Indianapolis as a boy when he saw his first films of the Speedway. The car that impressed him was the Bardahl Spl. Sam Hanks, 1957 Indianapolis winner, was one of the drivers of that car.

Years later when Fittipaldi joined the Lotus team in Formula One, he often thought about famed Lotus driver Jim Clark winning in 1965 at Indy. He continually asked car owner Colin Chapman about Indianapolis and maintained the thought in the back of his mind of driving there. His first opportunity came in 1974 with the help of McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer. He drove a few laps around the track in Johnny Rutherford's car that won that year.

But Fittipaldi was still driving in Formula One at the time. He won the World Championship in 1972 and 1974, retiring after the 1980 season. He was lured into Indy-car racing in 1984, at age 37, and finally fulfilled his dream of racing at Indianapolis. He started 23rd and finished 32nd after an engine malfunction on Lap 37.

Fittipaldi finished second at Indy in 1988 and then earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory the next year in one of the most famous duels in the race's history. Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. touched in Turn 3 on Lap 199 while Unser led and Fittipaldi was second. Unser crashed, and Fittipaldi took the victory under a caution flag.

"It was a classic race," Fittipaldi said. "I think it is one race that nobody will ever repeat, one that never will happen in motor racing again. It was so close going through Turn 3. I was on the inside, he was on the outside, and we knew each other were not going to back off. It was just a fantastic time.

"I was 42 years old, and it was unbelievable I could win Indianapolis."

Fittipaldi won again in 1993 and should have won again the next year. He had lapped everyone but Unser when he crashed.

Emmo said he was out of sync on his pit stops and would have needed a splash-and-go stop with eight laps to go. He said team manager Chuck Sprague told him he had to pass Unser to be a lap in front before coming in. Fittipaldi put the nose of his car close to the rear of Unser's car between Turns 3 and 4 to set up the planned pass on the straightaway, only to have the back end suddenly swing out and send the car spinning into the wall.

"It was a disaster," he said with a laugh.

The next year, 1995, both he and teammate Unser failed to qualify. That was the last time that Fittipaldi was at the track.

"The experience of motor racing is they can be wonderful and they can be a disaster," he said. "It was a incredible feeling not being able to qualify."

In 1996 at Michigan Speedway, Fittipaldi told car owner Roger Penske that he would retire at season's end. The next day he crashed hard into the wall and broke his neck and spent many weeks recovering, ending his driving career.

He now is promoter of the CART race in Rio de Janeiro and enjoying life with his family. Daughter Juliana has given him two grandchildren.

The irony of Fittipaldi's return is that his former teammate and rival, Unser, also is back at the track this May as a competitor.

"My daughter asked me yesterday, did I miss not driving?" he said.

"Yes, but I recognize my age. I'm not frustrated that I'm not driving. I'd like to be younger like Junior, for sure, to be driving. Yes, I miss not to be driving, but I'm not frustrated. I'm very happy to be here."

-IRLNS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Jim Clark , Emerson Fittipaldi , Tony George , Roger Penske , Johnny Rutherford , Colin Chapman