CHAMPCAR/CART: Brazil: A Great Racing Nation

Brazil is a great racing nation. - by Gordon Kirby South America's biggest country has produced more than its fair share of racing superstars, including world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. Between them, this...

Brazil is a great racing nation. - by Gordon Kirby

South America's biggest country has produced more than its fair share of racing superstars, including world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna.

Between them, this trio of Brazilian demigods won eight F1 world titles. Fittipaldi went on to enjoy a magnificent second career racing Champ Cars, winning the 1989 CART title and 22 races, including two Indy 500s, between 1985 and 1995. He retired recently at age 50, following two accidents. The first occurred in a Champ Car at Michigan Speedway in 1996, and the second happened while flying his ultra-light airplane at home in Sco Paulo.

Fittipaldi, a charming fellow with a sprightly sense of humor, forged a powerful interest in Champ Car racing in Brazil. He is considered the godfather of Brazilian drivers, and his success in Champ Cars attracted a massive wave of Brazilians to American racing. In recent years, three other Brazilian drivers -- Andre Ribeiro, Gil de Ferran and Mauricio Gugelmin -- have won CART races. The country accounts for a third of this year's field with no fewer than nine Brazilians expected to start next weekend's Rio 200.

This will be the fourth year that CART's Champ Cars have raced in Brazil on the aptly named Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway. The track is 1.864-miles long and consists of two straightaways and two serious corners, both requiring heavy braking and downshifting. There are a pair of kinks in the backstraight that are flat out and no problem, and the layout always produces a fierce race with plenty of drafting and outbraking.

A novel application at the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway is the tire barriers at either end of the track. Developed by CART and Goodyear after Mark Blundell and Scott Goodyear went to the hospital following big collisions with the wall during the first race in Rio, the barriers have proven very effective, saving many drivers from serious injury in 1997 and 1998.

The same technology and planning needs to be applied to American oval tracks, which have dragged their feet in this matter. Sensibly designed tire barriers or crushable walls must be developed, and at this point the tire barriers used in Brazil are leading the way.

Meanwhile, hopes are high that CART's adventure in Brazil will turn into a success this year. After three years of frustration with the original promoter, Fittipaldi himself has taken over the job of promoting this year's race. He installed a new management team, moved the race from Mother's Day -- which is one of the biggest holidays of the year in Brazil -- and slashed ticket prices. His considerable reputation and legendary name is on the line, and Fittipaldi says he's never worked as hard in his life.

"We are doing everything we can to make this race a big success in Brazil," he declared. "We've had a fantastic race every year in Rio. Everyone says it's one of the most exciting races of the year, and we're working very hard to make it a commercial success as well as a great race."

One example of what Fittipaldi is doing to increase local interests is Wednesday's Harley ride. Fittipaldi will lead all the drivers on a motorcycle ride from Copocabana Beach to the Speedway located about 45 minutes away in suburban Jacarepagua. We will soon see whether Brazilians respond to the efforts of their great racing legend.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Scott Goodyear , Gil de Ferran , Mark Blundell , Ayrton Senna , Emerson Fittipaldi , Andre Ribeiro