A BIG WHEEL HITS THE ROAD AGAIN

Emerson Fittipaldi came out of retirement to find new success driving Indy Cars
November 09, 1987

It is late afternoon and Emerson Fittipaldi has just climbed out of the pool at his Miami Beach home. Biscayne Bay is 17 steps away, and the cheapest houses in this enclave go for $1.2 million. Fittipaldi, twice the world driving champion and in 1972 the youngest man to win that title, does not own one of the cheapest. He flops down on a deck chair, wet and tanned and rich. His wife, Therese, and the children, Juliana, 13, Jayson, 11, Tatiana, 6, and Joana, 10 months, will be back soon. Perfect. Yes, it is all that, but it is not what Fittipaldi prefers.

"I always dream in my life to live by the sea," Fittipaldi says. "It's nice, yes? Feels good. But really there is no other feeling in the world like driving fast the racing car. When I leave the pits, it's like I pull the plug to disconnect from the world. I have only myself. That's good. The best."

Ah, yes, driving fast the racing car. With those two Formula One titles (1972 and '74), two seasons of retirement (1982-83) and near bankruptcy behind him, Fittipaldi, 40, is in the fourth year of a comeback and again driving at the front of the pack. Only now, instead of showing his mastery of Formula One venues, he's succeeding on the Indy Car circuit. And while there is a bit of the Grand Old Man aspect to this latest ride—"It's just a pleasure and a privilege to drive against him," says current Indy Car champion Bobby Rahal—Fittipaldi isn't just cruising around on some sort of valedictory tour. Witness: Despite experiencing mechanical problems that put him on the sidelines during eight of 14 races, Fittipaldi still scored two wins and never finished worse than seventh in the remaining races.

And is he enjoying himself? "Knowing you are driving on the limit is a great feeling. Come, you'll see." And with that, he runs—of course—toward his new Chris-Craft boat ($73,665)—fires it up and starts away from the dock. Backward. And fast. The prop reverses, and the boat shoots out onto the bay. Fellow boaters wave—and keep their distance. Fittipaldi returns a thumbs up.

"Hey, Emmo, are we going fast yet?"

"Not yet," he says with a laugh. In neat letters across the boat's stern is its name, Faster. After a few miles of red-line running, Fittipaldi whips the boat into a sandy cove and cuts the engines, jumps up on the transom and dives in. If he can't be having fun right now driving fast the racing car, this is one helluva substitute.

Out on the track Fittipaldi is maintaining a pace that convinces many Indy Car observers he will someday become the second man in history to add the Indy Car title to his world championships. That is one of the most formidable doubles in sport, as attested by the fact that only Mario Andretti has accomplished it. The problem is that while the two types of racing appear to bear a close resemblance, they are, as Andretti puts it, "only distant cousins."

Nowhere is the difference more apparent than on the oval tracks on which six of the 15 races in the CART schedule are contested, including, of course, Indy itself. Road racing is tolerant of a driver hanging a tire off the road to cut a corner, or riding up on a curb, or even occasionally missing a shift. Not so the ovals, where unforgiving cement walls mark the boundaries of the track, and speed differentials are figured in hundredths of a second. "You can learn from your mistakes on ovals," says Fittipaldi, "but it is good not to make too many."

Fittipaldi learned quickly and well, his first victory coming on July 28, 1985, at Michigan International Raceway, the CART circuit's fastest oval. "If I could choose one driver for all kinds of racing," says team owner U.E. (Pat) Patrick, "I'd choose Emerson."

All this is making Fittipaldi a hero to a new generation of fans who have only a vague recollection of his past but admiration for his present and great expectations for his future. But does Fittipaldi believe he has proved himself on the major ovals? "No," he says. "It takes more than one win."

Two?

"Well, I just want to drive consistently fast."

The truth is that Fittipaldi will always be searching for one more win. Indeed, at Michigan this year Fittipaldi, who had won the two previous CART events, nursed a truly foul-handling car to seventh. And was furious afterwards. "I did not," he fumed, "come back into this sport to finish seventh."

That's part of his appeal. He is back in the sport for the joy of winning. Sure, money is a convenient way to measure success—and Fittipaldi's corporate income is rumored to be in the $700,000 range, plus the usual top-line driver's cut of 40% of any prize money—but the prospect of seeing a checkered flag waving for him once again is the lure that brought him back. "I'm not trying to prove to myself not anything," he says in the third-best of his five languages (English ranks behind Portuguese and Spanish, but ahead of Italian and French). "I am just trying to win."

This attitude combines the exuberance of his Italian grandfather, the stoicism of his Russian grandmother and the macho emotionalism of Fittipaldi's privileged upbringing in Brazil. His father, Wilson, was a motor sports journalist and former racer who encouraged his sons to race bicycles, Go-Karts, boats and, for a while, motorcycles. But after Wilson Fittipaldi was almost killed riding in a 24-hour motorcycle race, he banned the two-wheelers for his children. So naturally Emerson and his older brother Wilson Jr. would sneak off and enter races under assumed names, borrowing riding leathers from friends.

It was a lot of fun, but hardly the thing that would attract the eye of Formula One teams. "When you are raised in Brazil, you are a very long way from big racing," says Fittipaldi. But now a smile breaks out on his face as he recalls one advantage his home country did give him. "In Brazil," he says, "every time the stop light changes, it is like the start of a Grand Prix race."

When he was 16, Fittipaldi created a fancy leather steering wheel and put it in his mother's car. A neighbor saw the wheel and promptly bought it for twice what Emmo had spent to make it. Within months, Fittipaldi was producing and selling 100 steering wheels a month. He cannot remember how much money this represented (to this day, the conversion from the Brazilian cruzeiro to the American dollar proves difficult for him), but one of his companies. Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories, is still selling steering wheels, for about $300 apiece.

In 1969, at age 22, Fittipaldi spent $3,000 to get some training at a British race-driving school. "I could drive fast, but I did not have the experience to drive fast," he says. That didn't take long to acquire. In 1970 he stunned the racing world by winning 9 of 12 Formula Two races. With the Grand Prix season still under way that same year, the late Colin Chapman hired Fittipaldi to be his No. 2 driver on Team Lotus. Emmo finished his spectacular season with his first Formula One triumph, at Watkins Glen in the Grand Prix of the U.S. "I am special in my sport," Fittipaldi candidly admits, himself seemingly as astounded by that fact as anyone else. "But in anything else I am normal."

This means he is not immune from occasional failure. In late 1975 Fittipaldi tired of being the hired gun and turned to building his own race car and running his own team. For six seasons he struggled, spending millions of his and other people's money—"too much" is all he lets himself recall—and for all this, the best his team could do was a second-place finish in the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1978 and a third at Long Beach in 1980. "Generally," he laments, "I did much worse than I expected. I was just a number in the race, not a competitor. I hate. So I say, 'Emmo, why you do this?' I say, I don't know.' So then I say, 'I think I will stop.' "

And he did, having blown almost all of his money, and having driven his marriage of 13 years to Maria-Helena into a ditch: "I didn't give my wife enough time or my children enough time. But the real problem was I didn't have enough time to give. That was a big mistake."

So he returned to Brazil and the Mercedes-Benz dealership in S√£o Paulo he ran in the off-season until 1984, and to his orange plantation with its 250,000 trees. "Farming, it's not exciting," he says, "but it is steady and the land is always there." Yet, there is frost (once he lost 40,000 trees, worth approximately $500,000), and there are 56 different diseases that can strike. "Like everything in my life, there is even risk in my oranges," Fittipaldi says.

Fittipaldi seemed content to settle into the life of an entrepreneur—his automotive accessory business, car dealership and farm having rebuilt his personal finances to a very comfortable level. But in 1984, Miami businessman Ralph Sanchez approached Fittipaldi about bringing his marquee name to a new sports/prototype race Sanchez was promoting. "I was happy," says Fittipaldi of his brief retirement, "but I was missing racing." That's plausible, but why jump back into the sport that nearly ruined you? "What I had to do was start my life over. And the best thing for me to do to start over is to sit down and drive fast in a racing car. It was like my second marriage. New and different."

Fittipaldi led the Miami race for a while in a car that had little business being among the top 10, and that led to a deal to drive on the Indy Car circuit in a pink (yes, pink) car. Emmo says the hardest thing about his comeback was having to walk around the pits in a pink driving suit. "But I like pink," he says charitably. After just three races, Fittipaldi moved to the California Cooler team, where he got to drive a green car. Green is an unlucky color in racing circles. "Well, I like it better than pink," he says.

That car did seem to change Fittipaldi's luck. For the better. Pat Patrick approached Emmo in 1985 and asked him to drive for his two-car CART team. Patrick's team is consistently one of the best. It has won 28 Indy Car events since 1973, trailing only Team Penske over that span. Fittipaldi, who until this point had viewed his Indy Car rides as something of a lark, now saw a chance to join the select company of Andretti, Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill as world champions who had also won the most famous race of all.

But does Fittipaldi have to win the Indianapolis 500 to justify his successful comeback? "In the eyes of the public, yes," says Andretti, "but in the eyes of his competitors, no."

And Fittipaldi? How does he feel? Back home in Miami Beach, Emmo is driving fast the Mercedes and is saying to a passenger, "I am 10 years younger. I am driving now like before, but with balance between racing and family." So are you now the sport's elder statesman? Fittipaldi's eyes flash and he presses down on the accelerator. "I am a veteran—a very young and very motivated veteran."

PHOTODAVID HUTSONFittipaldi is happiest when he can pull down his helmet and "drive fast the racing car." PHOTOBUCK MILLERTwo-time world driving champion Fittipaldi now feels at home on tracks like Indy's.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)