IRL: Gil de Ferran: Racing to race again

IRL: Gil de Ferran: Racing to race again

It was a hard hit that Gil de Ferran took at Phoenix International Raceway, little more than a week ago, his second concussion in six months and the third in the Brazilian's illustrious career. Fighting with Michael Andretti for possession of ...

It was a hard hit that Gil de Ferran took at Phoenix International Raceway, little more than a week ago, his second concussion in six months and the third in the Brazilian's illustrious career.

Fighting with Michael Andretti for possession of fifth place in the Purex/Dial 200 at the fast and tricky mile oval, de Ferran had some premonition on the lap prior to the accident, which occurred on the 187th of 200 laps on a warm, clear afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.

Gil de Ferran.
Photo by IMS LLC.
Knowing he was going to speak with reporters this afternoon and realizing he was now well enough to sit down and see the tale of the [video] tape, de Ferran watched the race. (Many who sustain head injuries of the type de Ferran suffered remember little of the events that precede their injury; de Ferran, thankfully, recalls much of the weekend.)

"I reviewed the tape this morning and it's the first time I've been able to," he admitted. "I knew the subject would come up. I've heard Michael's comments and they are predictable, coming from him." Andretti said de Ferran moved up the racetrack and he, Andretti, had nowhere to go.

"The lap before, I had to pull out in a hurry. Michael and I were alongside one another and my front wheels were slightly ahead. I thought he'd come down so I pulled out, stood hard on the brakes and continued on. Indeed, we were right next to one another in the turn," the video revealed. "He turned in like I wasn't even there, like he didn't know how close we were. I'm quite disappointed" in Andretti's public stance on the incident.

De Ferran sustained a concussion and cracks to two vertebrae; he also has a chip to one vertebra, the cervical injuries located at his neck and at the base of his back. "I'm in some pain, but my head is getting more normal day by day. It is the head injury that bothers me a lot," affecting his equilibrium.

His Chicagoland crash last September in the penultimate event on the Indy Racing League 2002 calendar forced de Ferran to sit out the closer at Texas Motor Speedway one week later, yet he still managed to cop third place in the point standings. That accident, Gil believes, was much worse than the injury sustained at PIR.

"Certainly having two accidents so closely, in such a short period of time is not a good thing. This one is slightly less severe than the other and I do remember more of the weekend in Phoenix."

The last time he wasn't in the cockpit at this time of year was in 1991, when de Ferran sustained his first concussion, driving British F3. "I wasn't driving for the same reason," he chuckled nervously. "I had a big accident and had to miss a month." He had vision problems that forced Gil to sit out, actually a couple of months.

The Marlboro Team Penske squad will have to do without him - best case scenario - until late April or early May, when de Ferran is hoping to get back into his #6 Dallara/Toyota to go testing in preparation for the 87th annual Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Gil de Ferran.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
"I'll get back in the car when I feel 100%. If Alex [Barron, who is substituting for de Ferran at Twin Ring Motegi on April 13th] wants to talk about the car, I'd be pleased to help him in any way that I can," he revealed. Having to stay immobile is difficult for the two-time CART champion, who has gained 2 national championships, 20 pole positions, 9 race wins, 56 top-five finishes, among other achievements.

And he's not ready to hang it up, by any means. "I still enjoy racing tremendously." De Ferran has different ways of looking at the career he has built, primarily here in the United States. "I'm not into setting historical marks. Not into being the winningest driver or having the most championships. For me racing is a selfish pleasure. I'm seeking my own limitations and trying to expand my abilities.

"I get a kick out of it, doing a better job than anyone else on the race track. The day I'm not faster and the day I can't do a better job than anyone I can think of, that's when I'll think about hanging up" the helmet. "I still enjoy it tremendously, working with Team Penske and enjoy the competition. Perhaps I'm selfish," he laughed, "so I keep on going.

"There's no thought of retirement here. In my mind, I'm focused on recovery. I don't like the idea that I have to be in recovery from an accident when I should be" on the track, challenging himself once again. "From an emotional standpoint, that's what I struggle with the most." So he's immobile in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, spending time with wife Angela, children Anna and Luke. "It's tough for me because I can't wrestle with (4- year-old) Luke like he wants," because of the injury.

What happens to a world-class driver who suffers a concussion as Gil de Ferran has? "The worst part is the headaches and dizziness. The whole thinking process is affected," Gil said. "I've had balance problems, like I've had too many drinks," he laughed.

Gil de Ferran's accident at Phoenix International Raceway has brought up questions about the HANS (head and neck support) device, mandatory in all major open wheel series at this time. "I think we have to focus on the right issues regarding HANS. There's been a big push in safety over the last few years and that was a natural move.

"When HANS came along, the more I tested with it the more I was convinced it was at least slightly beneficial and, in some cases, extremely beneficial. There is more development needed with it and the Hutchens device (used by NASCAR drivers) to find the right positions with individual cars."

Countryman Rubens Barrichello has been extremely uncomfortable with his HANS and was able to drive without it in Malaysia last weekend, receiving dispensation from Dr. Sid Watkins, Formula One's resident physician. "When I first tried it on, I thought 'this is the worst thing ever.' It is more uncomfortable for some than others and it's easier or not depending on how you're built.

"My HANS is custom built. The focus is on comfort and it took three or four versions until I was able to work with mine," de Ferran revealed. There is testing all the time to improve the safety for drivers, and he feels the HANS definitely helped him at Phoenix.

Gil de Ferran.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.
What else would help? "There is testing all the time to improve devices like the HANS. I think it would be wrong to focus on it as the last answer. New ideas have opened the door and there will be further development in this area. New ideas, new things will come later. It's the same thing with walls."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the first entity to embrace SAFER walls, not exactly softer but safer, de Ferran and his peers agree. "That was a major step forward and showed leadership. We'll have to see if more track owners follow the lead Indy has shown."

In terms of car and driver safety, then, de Ferran believes there has been more progress. "In cars and equipment, there has been development but tracks have made little progress," due to the costs involved. "This is not only on ovals, but the people responsible for cars and drivers have been very response in the safety arena."

Reaching for the next rung of the ladder, Gil de Ferran must remain stationary, for now, at his Ft. Lauderdale home, staying behind while the IndyCar Series makes its first foray to Japan and Twin Ring Motegi. It's not a situation he wants to be in, but knowing that his Marlboro Team Penske race car is waiting for him at the end of this recovery period has the Professor eager to undertake any physical therapy necessary to regain his edge.

"There's a lot of research on head injuries like mine and a lot of smart people are working on this. I'll keep checking in with Dr. [Steve] Olvey, who has worked with me for several years and he'll help me decide when to come back.

"If I didn't feel like I could drive at 100%, if I didn't feel I have the faculties to win, then I will decline [to drive]. If I'm not fit enough to fight for the win (at the 87th Indy 500), well then I won't be in the seat."

Gil, take your time coming back to competition. For someone with your intelligence and good humor, Roger Penske can wait for the man he now calls "my unfair advantage."

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Series IndyCar
Teams Team Penske