IRL: Indy500: Emerson Fittipaldi Legends interview

Indianapolis 500 Legends Transcript Emerson Fittipaldi May 16, 2000 Q: Well, good morning and welcome to the media center here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Emerson Fittipaldi, great to see you again. We've got a spot for you right here.

Indianapolis 500 Legends Transcript Emerson Fittipaldi May 16, 2000

Q: Well, good morning and welcome to the media center here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Emerson Fittipaldi, great to see you again. We've got a spot for you right here. In addition to those of you who are here with us in the media center in the conference room, we are being joined by an internet audience today at indyracing.com and indy500.com. We would like to welcome you watching and listening today on the Internet. We would also like to invite you, those of you on the Internet, to send questions that you have for our legends here this week at the Speedway that are appearing, like Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears and so many of the others, if you do have questions that you would like to ask, you can send those questions to us at legends@indy500.com. Certainly, we want to welcome one of the legends back to the Speedway today. It's great to see you and I guess first, an opening statement from you just on being back at the Speedway and what you think of the changes here.

Fittipaldi: Well, I was very surprised at the place and the first thing this morning I was jogging around the Grand Prix track. Beautiful job. I'm sure the Formula One race will be very successful here. It looks outstanding track for Formula One and all these new facilities -- the tower . . . I was in Tony George's suite having lunch half an hour ago and the place is amazing. I mean, I don't know any other facility in the world that has this type of setup and if you go back in the history of racing, since 1914, how many great champions went through this place, how many sweating, adrenaline, drive on the edge to be successful here, how much effort has been put behind this place, human effort, it's just fantastic. There's so much tradition and now with NASCAR and now with Formula One, my opinion would be really the capitol of auto racing. I mean, there's no other place in the world similar to this. It would be for sure. I'll be here in September to watch the first Formula One Grand Prix. It will be a historic event and I think we'll bring back to America Formula One in a big way, because we are missing Formula One in America and I think that's going to be bringing back the excitement of Formula One to the American public and for the American TV as well.

Q: Emmo, of course, two-time world driving champion in Formula One, twice winning the Indianapolis 500 here, the first time driving for Pat Patrick in 1989 and then returning to win his second race in 1993 with Roger Penske and I believe you finished second in, I can't remember if it was '92 or '94, but I remember you finished second for Penske as well. Led over 500 laps here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during his, I believe it was eleven races, eleven appearances here at the Speedway. Questions, obviously, and just race your hand and we'll get you the mike.

Q: One of your teammates from Marlboro Team Penske is back, Al Unser Jr. and just what are your thoughts on that because you know what this place really meant to him.

Fittipaldi: Well, I'm very pleased and very happy to see Junior here. I think he's going to be successful in the series. He needs a change, personally and psychologically, he needs a change, he needs a new challenge and I think he has a new challenge now and I think that's very good for him.

Q: When you retired from Formula One, if I remember correctly, you actually contemplated getting away from racing. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to come back and start a second chapter in your career?

Fittipaldi: Well, I went back to Brazil in '80, it was my last Grand Prix race and then took a year, year and a half and then I started driving go-karts in Brazil and then Ralph Sanchez invited me to drive in the Miami Grand Prix in 1983 in downtown Miami, the street circuit. That was the first time I was back in the real racing cars. You know, three years after retiring, I was very excited to be in the car and I told my wife, I said, 'well, I want to do like, four or five classic race, classic events a year, sports car' and I went to Miami for a week and I stayed there 15 years. That's exactly what happened and it was the most enjoyable part of my career I think, as a driver. Being the driver, I was able to have more fun, what it means to me this sport. Being outside of the cockpit, having fun with the people, having fun with my family, my friends, was much more what I call a relaxed, easy life outside of the cockpit in Formula One. That season I was older, I was more experienced, but I had more motivation to enjoy life and I think that's what made me to be competitive again and have what I call the willpower to win, or to go for a win. I think that's what's great in any sport, when mentally you have the motivation and the willpower to succeed and to win and I think coming back to America I had that willpower, that motivation back to me and I worked very hard on the new technique to drive an oval. I worked very hard mentally to excess, because it is very difficult for a retired athlete to go back to sport and be successful again and was a barrier that I had to go through and the barrier was with myself. It took me a long time to overcome the barrier. It took a long time, like two seasons, to get the regimen back in traffic. There are two different things, when you drive by yourself on the racetrack, even the retired driver can be fast, but when you compete against each other, you have to face with another challenge, race against another competitor. You need the regimen to go back. Everything has to happen with more intuition, more automatic and more you know what's going to happen before it happens, but you don't know how you know, but you know it's going to happen. That's what, when you go back to the sport, that feeling of knowing what's going to happen before it happens, took nearly two years for me. Then I was very excited with my career and unfortune happened with the crash in Michigan. On Saturday after qualifying, I told Roger that Laguna was going to be my last race. I remember Roger told me as a friend, "I'm happy for you Emerson. If you and your family, your kids . . . " I have one of my daughter's, she's here today. And I was going to be able to enjoy more of my kids and then happened to crash, but that's it, that's life. I'm very lucky to be here enjoying life more than ever now.

Q: Emerson, we know that you have a lot of business interest all around the world and you're a busy guy and I know you miss racing too. There's always rumors that you're going to get involved in open-wheel racing again as a car owner. Have you given any thought to that?

Fittipaldi: You know, the racing in Brazil was a big challenge. I didn't expect it would be so difficult to be a promoter. It drove me crazy. The last two years, I mean, has been a lot of effort and work. I have a lot of respect now for the promoters and I remember when they started work with Chris Pook in Long Beach, he was going crazy the night before the race and now I understand and I'm still 100% focused on getting the Brazilian race successful for the next few years and then in the future, I think anything involving racing, I would consider. The passion is still there, I love the sport. It's my life, my career and why not one day have my own team, but not yet, for the future.

Q: Emerson, your last year as a driver was '96 and that was the year where you were racing somewhere else the day of the Indy 500 and how much of a disappointment was that that you weren't here that day?

Fittipaldi: Well, you know, I was, I'm sure to me and Al Unser Jr., to Junior was very disappointed because he didn't qualify the year before. And for sure, when things are against on your sport, you want to go back and try to come back and be successful again and we were never able to come back to Indianapolis. Junior now is going to do that. I think that's a big advantage that he has that I'm not ever going to be able to do it, but I was very disappointed, like most of the drivers not to be back to Indianapolis and I think it was a losing situation for everybody. It was a losing situation to the sport, to the drivers, to the sponsors, to the teams. It was not a winning situation to anybody.

Q: Emerson, you were saying the other day in Brazil, you were going to get in your hang-glider and we all laughed, of course. After you've healed up, talk about, being a promoter is obviously thrilling, but what do you do now, do you race go-karts anymore or just keep your hand . . . what's still thrilling?

Fittipaldi: I have a very slow motor reaction. But, inside the motor, there is some very fast (inaudible) and that spells trouble. But, I enjoy the family, I enjoy boating a lot, I love boating a lot, the boat now is in Brazil. That's my hobby. I'm starting thinking about flying helicopters soon. I saw Tony's helicopter right behind the museum. I asked who's is this helicopter, it's Tony's. Well, we all like machines and it's exciting to be flying and controlling it. I think there's always a relationship between racing cars and airplanes and one of the biggest thrills of my life was flying the Blue Angels. I mean, the F-18 was fantastic. I still remember today it was one of the most exciting days of my life to fly the F-18 with the Blue Angels in formation. I mean, while I'll miss this and I know something's going to happen in the future, I'm going to have something to have fun, but at my age it has to be very slow fun.

Q: Emerson, getting back to 1996 and the disappointment you had, would you like to see yourself in a role or someone like you in a role of mediator to get CART and IRL to agree on something after five years of being, whatever you want to describe, not communicative?

Fittipaldi: I did as much as I could at that time and every time I see Tony and Andrew Craig, I say can they get together?' I mean each one has their own reasons why we're not together, but I hope in the future it will go back together again. I mean, I hope it's possible and then I come back to Indianapolis as a team owner. I hope so.

Q: Emerson, we have a question from the internet. This comes to us from Ray Buoy at Ossage.net and he had several things he wanted to ask you, but first off, how many teams have you driven for over the years during your career and I'm assuming he's talking both F1 and your Indy Car career.

Fittipaldi: Well, that's one of the things, I always try to be very conservative and I never changed a lot of teams. I drove for Lotus was my first Formula One team for Colin Chapman. From '67 to '73, I drove four seasons and then I signed for McLaren with Teddy Mayer for two years and then I did one of my mistakes in my life . . . we all do mistakes. I did my own Formula One team and then I drove a very tough four seasons from '76 to '80, but that's it. I only drove for three Formula One teams and Indy Car, I drove for the first time at Indianapolis in '84 for a small team from Florida. I only did the Long Beach Grand Prix and here and there I drove the California Cooler car for Gary Bettenhausen for one or two races and then I signed with Patrick Racing until '89 and then Roger for eight years. I mean, signed contracts, I drove for two teams here -- Pat Patrick and Roger Penske, that's it.

Q: Without incriminating yourself, was there a favorite or do you consider them all on equal terms?

Fittipaldi: Well, I think each one has his pros and cons, but the one I most enjoyed was Roger. I think Roger's organization is outstanding. His commitment to win is like, I never saw a team manager, even in Formula One have that type of commitment. No compromise for winning, no limits for anything. He just wants to win. I think that's the name of the game.

Q: You were talking about how much you would like to get the sport get back together. You know, this year the best team in CART over the last four years, is here making a run at it. Do you kind of see a situation where, you know, CART teams will kind of trickle back rather than flood back to this place?

Fittipaldi: Well, I was talking to Tony George a half an hour ago and we were discussing that. I can see even there's no rule change and every year there's going to be more CART team members coming to Indianapolis to do the '500' for sure. It's going to happen. I think the event's big again. It would be bigger with our teams participating, our drivers and I think that's the wave of the future. It's going to happen.

Q: Emerson, you've had a lot of great accomplishments here. What might be one of your biggest disappointments here at Indy?

Fittipaldi: Well, you know, you always remember the year I didn't qualify, but to me was the '94 race I lost. It was difficult to lose that race and I managed to lose. Most of the time it's difficult to win, that time it was difficult to lose that race. It was my fault because I was too anxious. I had the wrong segment of pit stops. I think after my second pit stop, I got a plastic bag on my water radiator and I broke down my segment. I had to come in to take that off and that means I had another pit stop, more than anybody else and then the whole race, on my mind, I had to be at least one lap ahead of the second guy to be able to come in, do a splash and go and still win the race. When I left Al Unser Jr. and Chuck was on the radio to me saying "Emerson, that's okay. Eight laps to go and you're going to come in." I was on the last segment of the race, but I had to do a splash and go and then there was a (inaudible) and Al Jr. passed me again and then I called on the radio and I really panicked and Chuck said "Emerson, you have to be ahead of Junior to be able to slow down, go back to your pit and pick up speed again and still win the race." I remember going between three and four, I set up Junior, I come with my nose very close to his gearbox, but it was too close and I lost the downforce in the rear wing. I think it was the biggest mistake of my life. It cost me, you know, frustration, not to be able to win the race.

Q: Emmo, of your wins here at Indianapolis, which one stands out the most? Is it the first one like most guys say? Does that stand out the most for you and why?

Fittipaldi: I think it's like I won my first world championship. The emotion to me, the first one was the most significant to me. Thinking it through, I think the second was better, but the first one was like my second career in Indianapolis. I was over 40 years old. I dreamed all my life to one day be in Indianapolis. Today at the museum I looked at the Bill Vukovich car. I remember I was seven or eight years old the first time I saw the (inaudible) in Brazil about Bill Vukovich winning Indianapolis in the 50s. And then there was that dream coming true that happened in '89 was an incredible feeling, emotional to me, to win Indianapolis in '89.

Q: With the history of F1 in the United States, what do you think about when you hear 200,000 tickets sold for this race and also, have you looked at the track and what do you think about the track here?

Fittipaldi: Well, you know, I think Formula One will have the greatest opportunity to be back again in America in a big way. I'm sure the race will be successful, the crowd will be excited to see Formula One. I think that the, what I call the Grand Finale for Formula One would be a big show. Coming from Brazil I stopped in Miami, I had lunch with Ralph Sanchez and the first thing he said was 'Emerson, I am going in September to Indianapolis' and sure, I'll be there in September to watch the first Grand Prix race in Indianapolis. I think it will be great for the sport, for Formula One, it will be great for Indianapolis, it will be great for the American fans and it will be successful, for sure. I jogged this morning on the track and I think the layout of all the grandstands around the main straight and going reverse will be a fantastic view. The Formula One cars are going to be extremely fast coming out of Turn 1. I think it will be very impressive coming off of Turn 1 and it will be a great overtaking area when you brake to the infield. Today's Formula One cars are very difficult to overtake. Most of the races are quite boring because there's no overtaking, but I think the end of the straight here is going to be a place that things are going to happen. It looks like a beautiful layout.

Q: Emmo, when you started in Formula One, it was a pretty dangerous time. Jochen Rind had died about that time, Ronnie Peterson was to die later on. Could you reflect a little bit on the safety, not only in that series, but in the Indy Car series when you came into it and how you think it's gone over the years.

Fittipaldi: Well, you know, another thing I remembered when I was back here, I asked this year is going to be the 30th anniversary from my first Formula One win in Watkins Glen, the U.S. Grand Prix. At that time, the odds for a Grand Prix driver was seven to one to survive. In the beginning of the season, there were 20 drivers and three would die by the end of the season. You know, from 1968 to '70 and with those odds, chances and our main approach to racing was very tough at the time. And the biggest gains to happen in motor racing in 30 years is the safety improvements. The racing cars got much, much stronger, much better, the track facilities, the driver's equipment, the rescue teams. I mean, how quick you arrive at the crash, how fast you get the driver out, how efficient to keep the driver alive today. I mean, there's a fantastic progress on the medical area too. I mean, the infield hospital . . . I remember when Mark Donahue crashed in Austria. I saw the yellow flag going on over the very fast right-right corner up the hill and when I slowed down, I was driving a McLaren at the time, and I slowed down and I saw the Armco barrier completely down and there was a black mark from tires like it went over and there was a hill going downhill. I said to me, I said (expletive), someone went that way, it's tough. I stopped my car, I braked, I jumped out, I went over the Armco and when I came down the hill, I saw Mark. He was in the right position, but he was unconscious at the time and both marshals pronounced him. They were complete amateurs. They just looked, they panicked and they didn't know what to do. Then there was myself and Hans Struck, who helped Mark to go back to the ambulance and that's how bad was the first medical help. I mean, I was not supposed to be doing anything there. It should be a doctor, it should be a professional guy and that's how, talking many, many years ago. I mean, it has been an incredible improvement in all three area, the cars, the track, the equipment and the medical rescue team. When I had my crash in Michigan, immediately CART made a study, Dr. Steve Olvey, why I broke my neck and there was this cap between the headrest and the top of the seat. The next year all the cars had one piece seat and that I'm sure saved a lot of future crashes and people breaking necks. I think the closeness in racing helps a lot -- people who are serious, people who want to improve the sport. Going back to another extreme, three years ago I was invited to drive the Grand Prix car, the Mercedes 1937 in Hockenheim just before the German Grand Prix, and I did five laps and I feel like I was hurt and I was exhausted after five laps. I took my hat to the drivers from before the second war, that drove that car around Nurburgring. I mean, can you imagine how that would be with no belts, little leather helmets, three and a half hours, four hours. You know (inaudible) all these guys. Amazing. I can see from that time to now, big improvements. I'm not saying it's easy now, you know, technically it's very tough to win any race, but it's much safer now. There's no comparison. It's 100% safer.

Q: Emerson, talk about when you came here in the early 70s, I think it was 1974, and ran the first time around Indianapolis and what you think the Formula One drivers will think of the walls?

Fittipaldi: Well, you know the first time I spoke to a driver who didn't like Indianapolis was Jochen Ringden. I remember Jochen coming here and he spun, hit the wall and I think he went back to Europe. He was not very happy. But at the same time, Jim Clark and Graham Hill had a very positive experience. They liked, they created what I call a motivation for Grand Prix drivers to come back to Indianapolis, to try Indianapolis. When I drove in 1974, the chassis was extremely weak. I mean, we had incredible cars that disintegrate when it hit the wall, but the car I drove was very well set up. It was Johnny Rutherford's winning car from that year, the McLaren that won. I had a very good impression of how to get technique to drive the car and I enjoyed a lot the speed. I always liked fast corners. All my career, I always adapt myself to the fast corner style of driving, but, the speed was so great at the time. The engine had close to 2,000 horsepower and they had huge wings, I mean incredible downforce. I was extremely impressed and Teddy asked "Do you want to come back and drive here?" I said, 'Teddy, unless I have a full month to stay in Indianapolis to dedicate myself and not just going to Monte Carlo, jump in the plane, go to Indianapolis, back again to Europe, I'm not going to do it." I think at that time, I did the right decision. We were trying to put a team together for 1975 with McLaren, but I never expected to come back ten years later.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Jim Clark , Al Unser Sr. , Emerson Fittipaldi , Chris Pook , Tony George , Bill Vukovich , Roger Penske , Ronnie Peterson , Johnny Rutherford
Teams Team Penske