Gil de Ferran intends to leave the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series and his 21-year racing career on top. Currently second in points behind teammate Helio Castroneves (429-404), the 35-year-old veteran announced yesterday that he'd give up his seat in the Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota at the close of business October 12th at Texas Motor Speedway.
"This has been a very difficult and emotional decision because racing is all I've known since I was a teenager," de Ferran chuckled. "After [winning] the Indy 500 and approaching mid-season, I thought it was important to make the call whether to continue or not," he said. "It would not be fair to the team and our sponsors to wait until the end of the season because the best drivers make their choices between June and August and I wanted to give the team the opportunity to choose the best driver for next season."
Penske's choice to drive alongside Helio Castroneves at Marlboro Team Penske is 24-year-old American Sam Hornish Jr., who noted he'd had a dream as a kid about driving for The Captain. "I remember having a dream when I first started racing karts, that I met with Danny Sullivan, Rick Mears (his idol) and Roger Penske about driving for them," Hornish recalled. "I never told anybody because I thought it was the craziest thing that could ever happen."
Penske and Hornish had conversations late last year but there was no opportunity for Hornish to come to Team Penske until de Ferran made his plans known to his boss nearly two months ago. "After Kansas, they contacted us to talk about that opportunity." He couldn't say no, because Sam's desire has always been to win the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. It's the one thing he hasn't accomplished in the Indy Racing League, but both Castroneves and de Ferran have. Team Penske has 13 Indy 500 victories, more than any team in the 87 runnings of the 500-mile race.
He couldn't turn this down. "I had a lot of options," Sam admitted, "and all we've talked about [with Roger] is the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500. There has been no discussion about stock cars in this deal with Team Penske. My focus is on the Indy 500. I've put pressure on myself to win that race the last couple of years and this is the best possible opportunity to do that."
Right now, though, both Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. are focused on winning the final three races on the IndyCar Series docket, starting at Chicagoland next week, where de Ferran suffered the first of two serious accidents since joining the Indy Racing League at the start of the 2002 season.
"I would like nothing better than to go out on top," the Brazilian emphasized. "The motivation to win the last three races and the championship is within me. I've been racing with this decision already taken since early July and it hasn't changed how I approach" the job. "I can't race with fear," he said of the Chicagoland hit and this March's shunt at Phoenix International Raceway that forced him to sit out the Twin Ring Motegi round. "I have to drive with enthusiasm and desire."
For a guy who has been driving to win since he was 14, "driving will no longer be the main focus of my life. I have a lot of experience developing cars, shocks, tires and engines and I feel I'll be able to make good use of that experience and my business relationships in the future," de Ferran said. "For sure I'll have itches but now I will dedicate my life to something else."
He will have a difficult time leaving his friends and co-workers at Team Penske. "For Helio, this was a big shock. We've had a great relationship and it's been tough to keep him out of it [the talks]. I think," de Ferran laughed, "I will definitely miss the good times with Helio, but he lives close by and I'm sure we'll still see one another." Gil, wife Angela, daughter Anna and son Luke intend to stay in the Ft. Lauderdale, FL area, where they have made their home since 1996.
Hornish has been as torn as de Ferran concerning changing his affiliation and had a tough time racing against his future teammate last weekend at Nazareth, where he finished second to Castroneves. "I thought about the future but knowing what I knew, I wanted nothing more than to win that race. I knew gaining points was important and I really didn't have the opportunity to go for it on Sunday" in the Firestone Indy 225 race.
Like de Ferran, Hornish can only think now about the immediate future he has with Pennzoil Panther Racing. "We have an outside chance to win the title and I can only talk now about doing the best job I can. I have to focus on that at the track. It's time to race and all of this has been real hard on the guys." Panther gave Hornish "the opportunity at the end of 2000. I came in and did the best I could. There's no excuses."
It may be a "long shot to win the Championship, but I like the fact that I'm still in the hunt. With the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 we've had two seconds and one win and I'm pretty excited about that," Hornish said.
Hornish's contract with Team Penske is "more than one year but not a lifetime," he laughed, "but I hope to do a good job and stick around. They want championship drivers and theirs is a tough place to be. They picked me and I hope to be a good spokesman and win a lot of races" for Team Penske.
Sam Hornish has difficult shoes to fill. Gil de Ferran is a man who has always been inquisitive about his sport, working to understand the vehicles and the sport. "I've always loved racing and its technology. I went to engineering school to learn more about cars and development," de Ferran noted.
And de Ferran is not leaving the sport because he's been involved in an all- oval series these last two years. "I've never made secret the fact that I miss road racing, but I will not be leaving this team" to go somewhere else and road race. "There are risks in any sort of racing and I understood that from Day One."
Gil de Ferran didn't want to "go through a period of decline where my skills deteriorated and when I was not enjoying my driving. I'm driving as well as I ever have, enjoying the driving and the competition so I guess I'm stopping at the top. I'm having a great time, so I'm stopping right here," he laughed.
This 2003 16-race campaign in the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series will likely go to the last lap of the last race, the Chevy 500 on October 12th at Texas Motor Speedway. Would anyone be surprised to see Gil de Ferran, current driver of the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota be fighting for the title with the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet of Sam Hornish Jr.? The next three contests could and should be an epic battle, down to the wire.