IRL: De Ferran heading to retirement on top of his game

FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003 --Gil de Ferran will climb from a race car for the last time at the Chevy 500 Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway. After that race, he'll be retired. But no matter what happens at Texas, he will forever...

FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003 --Gil de Ferran will climb from a race car for the last time at the Chevy 500 Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway.

After that race, he'll be retired.

But no matter what happens at Texas, he will forever be known as the 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion and a two-time CART champion.

Not a bad way to end a career.

De Ferran's career began in karts in 1982 and will end in the IRL IndyCarTM Series in 2003. That means that de Ferran's biggest accomplishments, the Indianapolis 500 victory and consecutive CART championship in 2000 and 2001, came near the end of his driving career.

At age 35, he's going out on top.

"I guess I felt it was important to leave while I was at the peak of my career and move on to different things and look forward to an onwards-and-upwards career doing something else," de Ferran said. "It was a very difficult and emotional decision for me because being a race-car driver, it's all I have known really since I was a teen-ager. That's what I aimed to do since I was a kid, so it was a very big decision for me."

After starting his career in karts and racing in Brazil, de Ferran made a major decision in 1988.

That year, in addition to racing, he was studying at the Maua Engineering College in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He left the school to head to Great Britain to focus his attention on his racing career.

He worked his way up through the racing ranks of Europe and won the 1992 British Formula 3 championship for Paul Stewart Racing. He then moved to the FIA Formula 3000 championship and finished fourth in points in 1993 and third in 1994.

De Ferran came to the United States in 1995 and competed in his first season of CART for Hall Racing, earning one victory and a pole en route to the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year award. He continued in CART, moving to Walker Racing in 1997 and finishing second in points. De Ferran stayed with the team until 1999, when he made a decision to join the ultimate open-wheel team: Penske Racing.

"Driving for Team Penske is not anything that I could have hoped for, and it's really been a dream come true for me," de Ferran said. "I have enjoyed it not only from a professional perspective, and because of the success on the racetrack and the accolades and so on, so forth, but from a personal standpoint. It's really been a wonderful time for me."

When Penske called de Ferran in 1999 to join the team, Penske Racing Inc., was arguably at the lowest point ever. Penske had not scored a victory since Paul Tracy won May 24, 1997 at Gateway, giving the team it's 99th victory.

No one figured it would take three years and three days to get the 100th. It was de Ferran who, along with new teammate Helio Castroneves and new president Tim Cindric, helped the team return to prominence.

On May 27, 2000 at Nazareth Speedway, which Penske owned from 1986-99, de Ferran gave Penske his 100th victory. Later that season, de Ferran completed the comeback for the team by capturing the CART championship, the team's first since Al Unser Jr. won in 1994.

"When I spoke to Roger back in early 1999, it only took me a few minutes to realize, you know, how much commitment he had going forward to bring the team back to success," de Ferran said. "And certainly, his track record and the commitment he portrayed, I mean, in my mind, that was the best possible."

De Ferran backed up his 2000 championship with another championship in 2001. Also that year, the team raced in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1994. It also marked a return to the Brickyard for de Ferran, who completed just one lap in his rookie year of 1995 after his car was damaged in a first-lap accident. De Ferran finished second to Castroneves in 2001, completing the first 1-2 finish for Penske at the Brickyard.

For 2002, De Ferran, Castroneves and Marlboro Team Penske moved to the IRL IndyCar Series full time. De Ferran scored victories at Pikes Peak and Gateway en route to a third-place finish in the point standings despite missing the season finale at Texas due to a concussion suffered in an accident in the previous race, at Chicagoland.

In 2003, De Ferran came back from injury to claim the biggest prize in motorsports, a victory in the Indianapolis 500.

But it wasn't easy.

On March 23, at the Purex Dial Indy 200 at Phoenix, he suffered a minor fracture of the lower back and a concussion in a collision with Michael Andretti. De Ferran sat out the Motegi race but was cleared in time for practice at Indianapolis.

The team tested both a Dallara and Panoz G Force chassis, and de Ferran chose to change the Panoz G Force for qualifying and the race. The decision proved wise as de Ferran went on to win the 87th Indianapolis 500 by .2990 of a second over teammate Castroneves.

But he won't go for two Indy crowns in a row.

On Aug. 25, 2003, the announcement was made: de Ferran was retiring following the 2003 season. He would be replaced at Penske by two-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr.

It's rare in any sport that an athlete goes out on top. De Ferran is going out as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion and, with one race to go, is in fifth place in the IndyCar Series points standings, 30 points behind co-leaders Castroneves and Scott Dixon and still mathematically eligible.

While he'll need a lot of help to win his third championship in four years, to retire as the reigning "500" champion and have his last four championship results be first, first, third and at least in the top five, well, that's a heck of a way to go out.

De Ferran will now have more time to spend with his wife, Angela, and their children Anna Elizabeth and Luke at their Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. Beyond that, de Ferran isn't sure what he will do.

"Right now, there's no concrete plans, I guess, to be announced," de Ferran said. "I think the only one decision so far is that driving will no longer be the main focus of my life. You know, looking forward, I guess I have been racing for 21 years, and I guess I gathered a lot of experience with racing, all aspects of racing with cars and a little bit with business, and I developed and formed some good relationships over the years.

"Certainly, the one with the Penske organization and Roger, him and the guys there, it probably ranks as one of the most important ones. I would like to make good use of these experiences and these relationships in the future. In what way, shape, or form exactly, I have not come to that decision yet. Right now, I am focused on finishing this championship on a high note." While De Ferran's future may be a little uncertain, one thing is sure. He will be missed.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Paul Tracy , Scott Dixon , Paul Stewart , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Team Penske , Team Penske