Indianapolis 500 : Part-Time Hoosier : It Must Be May, Because Fittipaldi Is in His Indiana Mode

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emerson Fittipaldi is a 47-year-old Brazilian millionaire who lives in Key Biscayne, Fla., except in May when he becomes a citizen of Indiana.

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"For four weeks, I bring my family here, we rent a house and I live like a businessman," the defending Indianapolis 500 champion said. "For sure, I love coming here each year. There is so much tradition. Each year, the first time I walk through Gasoline Alley I get such a good feeling.

"I was thinking about it the other day, and next year I will have spent an entire year of my life in Indianapolis." One month at a time for 12 years.

Emmo, as everyone calls the former two-time Formula One champion, credits his home environment for much of his success here, including his victories in 1989 and last year--two of the most competitive 500s at the Speedway.

In 10 500s, he has finished in the top five four times, placing second in 1988 and third in 1990.

He will be starting on the front row for the third time in 11 races Sunday after his qualifying speed of 227.303 m.p.h. in a Mercedes-Benz-powered Penske was bettered only by pole-sitter and teammate Al Unser Jr. and fellow Brazilian Raul Boesel.

"Mentally, Indianapolis is the toughest track because it is the same four corners, the same garage, the same people, the same routine for a month," Fittipaldi said. "Being mentally prepared is the key to the Indy 500.

"A little home cooking and being with my family helps me to relax and recharge my batteries. That way, when I come back the next day I am mentally and physically ready. It is easy to get worn out."

Sunday's 500 miles should come easy for him. Since arriving on May 8, Fittipaldi has logged 2,052 miles--more than four complete races--while testing the reliability of the new Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine, designed specifically for the Indy 500 by Ilmor Engineering.

No one else is even close in number of laps here this month.

"The Mercedes is fantastic ," he said, using one of his favorite words. "We knew it would have the horsepower, but (car owner) Roger (Penske) wanted to make sure of its reliability. He wanted us to wring it out. Junior (Unser Jr.) did 500 miles in racing conditions at Michigan before we came here, but we wanted to put as many miles on it as we could right here.

"For sure, we are very pleased. It is not as easy as people say. Ilmor has given us the horsepower, but it is no good if you can't get it around the corners. That has been what we work on.

"It is different to drive. It has a different torque, a different acceleration than the regular Ilmor engine.

"It will be a very fast 500 miles, very competitive, very little passing. The cars are so close (in qualifying speeds) that passing will be possible mostly on restarts or in traffic. It will be like last year, when 10 cars were still on the same lap at the finish."

Fittipaldi started ninth last year, and although he passed Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy at the start to move into seventh, he lost a lap to the leaders during a flurry of yellow flags.

"It was like a cold shower when I found myself a lap down," he explained. "I had worked so hard getting up to third, and I was right on (Mario Andretti's) gearbox dicing for second place when I got caught in the wrong place when the yellow came out.

"When I lost the lap, it put me in traffic trying to pass slower cars, and I wasn't used to that problem. The guys in front of me were running smoothly, but they were about 7 m.p.h. slower than I could potentially run on my own. It was frustrating.

"Then I got a break of my own when Paul (Tracy) had his accident and I got my lap back on his yellow. I was still back of cars, but I felt better because I knew I was in a good position to race with them."

After 400 miles, the race turned on three yellow-flag restarts.

On Lap 179, Fittipaldi was between Andretti, the leader, and Mansell. On the restart, Mansell swept past both into the lead.

"I heard Nigel complaining that he didn't have experience to know what to do on restarts," Fittipaldi said, "but he bloody well did a good job on that one.

"When I saw Mario back off a little when Nigel passed him, I decided to try and pass Mario in the short chute. We were side by side through the second turn. His front wheel was inside the wheelbase of my car. I do not know today what kept us from contact. It was fantastic at that speed."

With 17 laps remaining, another yellow flag presented Fittipaldi with an opportunity to get the lead for the first time.

"I said to myself, 'It's now or never,' and I concentrated on getting a good jump on the restart," he said. "When I passed Nigel before Turn 1, I had clear sailing for the first time all day."

It was not over yet.

Seven laps from the finish, still another yellow flag slowed the pace.

"Roger (Penske) called me on the radio, but I said, 'Please don't talk to me now,' " Fittipaldi said. "I was concentrating so hard. I could not miss a gear. I knew Nigel was right behind me, hoping to make the same pass he'd made earlier, and Arie (Luyendyk) was right behind him."

Fittipaldi used an old trick to prevent being passed. After accelerating close behind the pace car, leaving what looked like a nice opportunity for Mansell to accelerate, Fittipaldi suddenly braked hard, narrowing the gap. Mansell and Luyendyk had to slow.

"I wanted all the momentum going into the first turn," Fittipaldi said. "Once I had braked and caused them some confusion, I accelerated as hard as I could to prevent them from drafting on me. The car was spot-on, and two laps from the finish I ran the quickest lap of the race.

"It was fantastic. The team did a beautiful job all month. The car ran great, the pit stops were right on. It was just a fantastic day.

"For sure, it took the best race of my life to win. It was like a bonus, winning at this late stage of my career. I felt I was driving better than when I was 25 because I worked so hard on my physical condition and my diet."

He was 25 when he won his first Formula One championship in 1972 with the Lotus team. His second title came in 1974 with the Marlboro McLaren team, beginning a relationship with Marlboro that continues today.

"Twenty years is a fantastic , long relationship with one sponsor," he said. "I don't think many people in professional sports have that kind of relationship with a sponsor."

Going into Sunday's 500, fourth race of the PPG Cup season, Fittipaldi is tied with teammate Al Unser Jr. for first place with 37 points. Fittipaldi won the Slick 50 200 in Phoenix and was second to Michael Andretti in the season opener at Surfers Paradise, Australia.

In 154 Indy car starts over 11 years, Fittipaldi has 21 victories. During an 11-year period in Formula One, he had 144 starts and 14 victories.

"In Europe and in South America, I am still referred to as a Formula One driver who is driving in the United States, but that is total BS," he said. "I am an Indy car driver, and I am very proud of that. I love the United States, and I am very honored to be able to live here, to be accepted here."

What is often overlooked in evaluating his career is that he was retired for nearly three years.

"I was very happy in Brazil, living a normal life and running my businesses, when some friends suggested I drive some Super Karts, really powerful go-karts, around Sao Paulo just for fun," Fittipaldi said.

"When I had retired, I said I would never drive a race car again in qualifying, practice or a race. I didn't consider the karts as real racing, but I found out it was, and I found that I was enjoying it.

"I thought perhaps I might do four or five sports car races a year, like LeMans. After I drove in the Miami Grand Prix (sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Assn.) in 1984, Jose Romero asked me if I would drive his car at Indianapolis. I surprised myself by accepting, and my second career took off."

Not without embarrassment, however. It wasn't that Fittipaldi was not competitive. It was that Romero's car was pink, and to carry out the color scheme, Fittipaldi wore an all-pink driving suit.

"Do we have to remember that?" he said, laughing at the thought. "Without that, though, I might not have joined Pat Patrick."

It was with Patrick in 1985 that he won his first Indy car race, the Michigan 500. Since then, he has never had a season without at least one victory.

To maintain such a pace, Fittipaldi is a fanatic on physical fitness and diet.

"My priority is to drive a fast race car," he said. "To do that, you must commit yourself 100% to the job. That means everything I do is toward racing. Most of my day is concerned with maintaining my fitness."

In the off-season, and between races, he works out three times a day after an hour of karate.

"I do some of my hardest work at (what would be) race time, when it is hot in Florida," he said. "That way, I get used to the heat--it can get very hot in a cockpit--and get my body acclimated to working at that time of the day. Driving an Indy car is very taxing."

He also has his own nutritionist, who prescribes a rigid diet.

For breakfast on race day last year, Fittipaldi had a bowl of granola with rice milk, and some fruit. Shortly before the race, he drank a spot of pickled plum tea.

"It worked last year, (so) I will have the same Sunday," he said.

Fittipaldi brought orange juice into the Indy tradition last year when he quaffed a bottle of it before taking the traditional swig of milk. It cost him a $5,000 bonus from the American Dairy Assn.

It didn't bother Fittipaldi, who owns a 750,000-tree orange grove in Brazil.

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