The Brazilian invasion of the Indianapolis 500--four of the first five starters in Sunday’s race are from the South American country--actually started in 1984, when Emerson Fittipaldi showed up in a shocking-pink car, wearing a purple uniform.
Fittipaldi’s two earlier Formula One championships had made for a cult following of young go-kart drivers in his home country. Over a span of 20 years, Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna brought eight F1 titles home to Brazil.
“Emmo was king in Brazil before he went to Indianapolis, but it was in 1989 when he won the 500, that the whole country came to recognize Indy as the world’s greatest race,” said Bruno Junqueira, this year’s pole-sitter. “I had just finished running in a kart race and was in my hotel. I just saw the end of it, where Emerson crashed into Al Unser Jr. on the last lap and went on to win.
“Ever since then, Indy is really big in Brazil. It would be good if five Brazilians were in the top five or six in the race Sunday. Everyone in Brazil will be watching. Last year they finished first and second, and I finished fifth. I would like to see a better showing this year.”
Two Brazilians, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, finished 1-2 last year. In Sunday’s 33-car field, there are seven Brazilians, among them elder statesman Raul Boesel, who is in the front row, Tony Kanaan, Felipe Giaffone and Airton Dare.
“All of us kids--Helio, Rubens [Barrichello], Kanaan, Giaffone, Cristiano [da Matta]--we all grew up racing karts against one another,” Junqueira said.
Barrichello is driving a Ferrari in Formula One and Da Matta is one of CART’s leading drivers.
Castroneves, the defending champion, who will start 13th Sunday in one of Roger Penske’s Marlboro cars, also recalls that 1989 race:
“The memories I have are that, from the moment Emerson won, we were thinking of the million dollars. We all thought, ‘Wow, that guy is rich.’ It inspired a lot of kids my age to come to the United States.
“The tradition is amazing, and that is what makes this place famous. I hope kids in Brazil are watching this race and are now looking at it for the same way I was looking for.”
Boesel, who followed Fittipaldi here in 1985, says that Fittipaldi’s wins in 1989 and 1993 not only inspired youngsters to race, but also influenced their fathers.
“First, go-karting in Brazil is very, very popular, second only to soccer,” said Boesel, 44, who is in his 13th 500. “Back in my days, my parents thought motor racing was for playboys, you know what I mean, there was no way to make a living off that.
“Today is different. I see a lot of parents that couldn’t do it when they were young, and they provide their kids with incentive. Sometimes you see young kids that have a lot of potential but end up with so much pressure from their parents that they waste their career.
“I cannot believe what I see, 6-, 7-year-old boys, driving wheel to wheel. So when they get to like 15, 16, they are already in Formula Fords and open-wheel racing. So they already have almost 10 years of experience in racing when they’re 16 years old. I think that’s the main reason that you see so many young drivers like Junqueira to be successful so early.
“There is not only incentive from parents but also from companies, who put their cards on kids like Barrichello. Barrichello has a company that followed up on him and gets a share of his salary later on. I think a lot of companies or private people held [on] at the beginning, thinking that this could be an investment in the future.”
Barrichello left Brazil for Europe and an F1 career in 1990. Last week, he was winning the Austrian Grand Prix when Ferrari officials ordered him to slow down and let No. 1 driver Michael Schumacher win.
The passion Brazilians have for racing and their drivers was shown when Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president of Brazil, issued a formal statement calling Barrichello the race winner.
“I started racing when I was 10 years old,” Junqueira said. “I remember when I first started racing karts with Cristiano, it was difficult because we’re from Belo Horizonte. That’s the third biggest Brazilian city, but we didn’t have any go-kart tracks.
“We used to go to the parking lot for the soccer stadium and practice with our karts. Then we had to travel to Sao Paulo, to Rio de Janeiro, to Brasilia or wherever to race.
“Our fathers used to race each other and when we were little they would load up the trucks and we would head for Sao Paulo.
“It was difficult, but I think it paid off because I used to race against Tony Kanaan, against Helio Castroneves, against Felipe Giaffone. It’s really nice when we used to race together to be here together in the highest point in racing.
“I remember, we used to stay in Tony’s house. Tony was like 13, Helio 12, and I was 10. We used to go to drive, practicing, and after that we would go out and play soccer.”
Giaffone and Barrichello have remained close friends since their karting days and Barrichello recently married Giaffone’s cousin.
Although Junqueira is the toast of the speedway this month as No. 1 qualifier, he was more of an afterthought last year.
When Chip Ganassi named his two drivers for the 2001 race, he bypassed his duo of Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian in favor of outsiders Jimmy Vasser from Pat Patrick’s CART team and Tony Stewart from Joe Gibbs’ NASCAR Winston Cup team. Once Vasser and Stewart qualified on the first day, Ganassi turned over backup cars to the other two.
Junqueira, although disappointed at not getting an earlier chance, responded by posting the second day’s fastest speed.
“It was a big surprise when Chip called me to race,” recalled Junqueira. “The guys had said, ‘Bruno and Nicolas can go home.’ I just got to 16th Street [just outside the track] and the phone rings. I thought maybe I had an appearance, but they said, ‘No, you’re going to race.’
“I only had one hour to practice. I don’t think Chip had planned to have us drive. He was very brave to do so.”
Junqueira’s fifth place was the highest rookie finish behind rookie winner Castroneves.
Surprisingly, even though Junqueira’s background is in road racing, he has had quick success on ovals. He won his first CART pole at Nazareth, Pa., and won his second race last month in Motegi, Japan, on another oval. Now he has the pole on the biggest and fastest open-wheel oval of all.
“I love high-speed corners and the oval is where you find the highest-speed corners,” he said. “I think that is why I adapt so well to ovals. On my first oval, I was on the pole, but I had to learn how to run the race, run in traffic with the oval rules. I had to learn to be patient because it’s really different when you’re out there alone qualifying and in the race where you have traffic and turbulence.”
Junqueira also has had another problem, that of adapting from a CART champ car to an IRL Indy car for the 500.
“Apart from both having four wheels, they are quite different,” he said. “Champ cars have more power and less downforce. That means they have less aerodynamic pressure to keep the car on the track, so they are faster on the straights, and the IRL cars are a little faster in the corners.”
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*--* Indy 500 Schedule: Today--Carburetion day final practice, 9-11 a.m. PDT; Pit Stop Challenge, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. PDT; Sunday--86th Indianapolis 500, 9 a.m. PDT, Channel 7 The Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2.5-mile superspeedway with a 36-inch strip of original bricks at the start/finish line. The facility opened in August 1909 and has 250,000 permanent seats. Four turns: 1/4-mile each. Banking: 9 degrees