No Man is an Island Raphael Matos' Battle for the American Dream PORTLAND, ORE., June 5, 2007 - No man is an island. However, in the sport of auto racing where big money backers and famous last names help skyrocket drivers to the top, Raphael ...
No Man is an Island
Raphael Matos' Battle for the American Dream
PORTLAND, ORE., June 5, 2007 - No man is an island. However, in the sport of auto racing where big money backers and famous last names help skyrocket drivers to the top, Raphael Matos is as close to a self-made man as one exists. Rafa, as he is best known in motorsports, is living the American Dream- although, as a native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, it could be argued it is the South American Dream- and he is doing it on the back of his own accomplishments. He earned his way into the Sierra Sierra Enterprises No. 6 ProWorks Swift/Mazda in the Champ Car Atlantics Championship by virtue of his success and desire alone and that success continues to come. With three victories and two pole positions to open the first three races, Matos has dominated the early part of the 2007 season like no one has since Mark Dismore won the first five events of the Atlantic's Pacific Division in 1990.
Like so many who have come to America seeking their dream, Matos hit these shores with big ambitions and little money in his pocket.
"I had to choose Europe or the US," said Matos of the decision. "I chose the US because I thought I had a better chance here. I don't come from a wealthy family so I couldn't afford to go racing in Europe. The chances are better to make it as a professional race car driver in the US."
While racing is massively popular in Matos' native Brazil, the flood of marketing dollars that poured north from the largest country in South America in the 1980s and '90s has largely dried-up. Brazilian drivers, like their North American counterparts, now struggle to find financial backing to keep their dreams alive. Fortunately, talent now often overpowers dollar signs at the top of the support car series.
"My family doesn't have money, I don't have a last name that opens doors," offered Matos in a rare moment when he looks back rather than being fully focused on his future. "My Dad got me started in everything. My Dad was always a big fan of racing. Since I was a baby he wanted me to be a race car driver. I was completely into it from the first time I drove my first go kart. I was addicted to the sport; all I wanted was to go racing. So, I had to make it happen if it was going to happen. No one was there with a checkbook to pay to keep me moving ahead. I had to win, and win a lot, to attract an owner that was willing to invest enough to keep moving up."
And win races and championships he has. Without the large financial backing to continue to rise up the ladder, Matos has had to work for every rung that he has climbed. He came to the United States after winning five karting titles and a Chevrolet Formula Junior title in his native Belo Horizonte. Once here, he stayed on the winning course. First entering the highly competitive, spec car, school-based Skip Barber Formula Dodge Championship in 2002, Matos immediately grabbed headlines with a victory in Formula Dodge National Runoff. He followed that by taking the Skip Barber Formula Dodge National Championship in 2003. Earning the support of Skip Barber by virtue of his championship, Matos moved on to open wheel racing standout Richie Hearn's Hearn Motorsports team in the Star Mazda Series. He captured two pole positions and a pair of second- place finishes in 2004 with Hearn. He moved from Hearn to Ocean Tomo in 2005 where he dominated the series with four victories to open the season and totaled eight podium finishes and three pole positions in 12 races.
For 2006, Matos was a hot property despite his empty pockets. With opportunities to return to the Star Mazda Series or move to the Indy Pro Series and the Champ Car Atlantic Championship powered by Mazda, Matos was able to pick-and-chose his best opportunities. He went with Sierra Sierra but not before his relationship with Mazda led to a chance to try his hand in the American Le Mans Series LMP2 class in the rotary- powered Mazda entry at the 12 Hours of Sebring. There, as everywhere, he impressed earning a seat in the prototype again in 2007.
Even more impressive was a "one-off" weekend in the Indy Pro Series in 2006. At St. Petersburg, Matos stunned the crowd by taking the pole position and a runaway victory in his first-ever street race. He followed that win the next day with a second victory, this time coming from sixth on the grid.
He was also called-upon to represent his country as part of the first class of young Brazilian drivers to race for A1 Team Brasil. In his first of three A1GP races with the team, he scored the first points that the team had earned all season. His sixth-place finish that weekend in China was also the highest the team would place all year.
Back to the business at hand, his rookie season in the Atlantic Championship started-off with a bang as well. In his first Atlantics' race Matos finished second on the tight street course in Long Beach. He went on to capture four poles, one race win (San Jose) and a fourth-place standing in the championship.
"During our driver selection process in 2006, Raphael was an immediate standout," recalled Diane Kottke, owner of Sierra Sierra, about the decision to place Matos in their car. "We knew that he had the talent and potential to win the championship. We knew that sponsorship was an issue but we were not willing to compromise- we knew we had to find a way to make it work with Raphael. We feel fortunate to have Raphael as part of the Sierra Sierra team."
Matos and Sierra Sierra entered the 2007 season as clear favorites for the title. However, no one expected the explosive start that the Brazilian and the Nevada- based team would enjoy. Topping the speed charts in nearly every session, Matos has taken the No. 6 ProWorks entry to three straight victories and two pole positions in the first three races.
"We are thrilled to be working with a driver as talented as Rafa," offered Sierra Sierra Team Manager Richard Raeder. "Choosing him last season at the test session was easy- he clearly showed his skill and potential. His driving style and talent can be compared to some of racing's great drivers."
The modest but confident Matos is not an island; he has relied upon friends and family for support. People like the Kottkes, Raeder, Hearn, Divina Galica of Skip Barber and Doug Bernard of Tropical Commodities have been instrumental in his growth as a driver. But, few drivers in modern-day racing have had to draw deeper within themselves and show more on the track to get where they are. Step-by-step, victory-by-victory and championship-by-championship Matos has earned the success he enjoys today. No man is an island but Raphael Matos is a man that stands on his own two feet in a field of drivers who stand on the shoulders of others.
Matos will attempt to extend his winning streak on Saturday, June 9 at Portland International Raceway (PIR), the first permanent road course of the 2007 season. He will follow that the next day with a second feature event on June 10 at PIR.