To many of the 30 million people tuned to the 1989 Indianapolis 500, Emerson Fittipaldi was just another race driver with a foreign name. But that perception suddenly changed on the next to last lap, when he became the embodiment of the daring, dashing driver who gives no quarter and expects none in return. As Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. dived into the third turn, fiat-out at 200 mph, side by side on a final sprint to the checkered flag, their wheels touched. Fittipaldi's car wiggled but somehow stayed on course to victory. Unser spun and smacked the wall.
Either could have prevented the incident by lifting off the throttle and yielding the line, but what driver is going to back off when he is 60 seconds from winning the most famous race in the world? Certainly not Fittipaldi, a two-time Formula One world champion who drew on experience accumulated over more than two decades of racing and coolly used traffic to take the advantageous inside line from Unser. He figured the race was his to win.
Seven days later another Fittipaldi was on display. This time he was leading the Miller 200 on the one-mile oval at Wisconsin State Fair Park. As he was lapping a slower car, the driver cut him off.
"Then I made a big mistake," Fittipaldi says. "I was so upset with him, I raised my fist. But when I did that, it upset the balance of my car because I was in his draft. I lost control. I spun and hit the wall. I had to go into the pits [to check for damage and change tires]. I recovered my position and was nearly leading the race again, then the rear suspension collapsed because I had touched the wall."
May 27, 1990
Fittipaldi went on to win the next three races—in Detroit, Portland, Ore., and Cleveland—to tie Rick Mears and Bobby Rahal for the Championship Auto Racing Teams record for consecutive victories. He won his fifth race of the 15-race CART season on Sept. 24 in Nazareth, Pa. By beating Mears to the finish there, Fittipaldi assured himself of the 1989 Indy Car championship.
This year Fittipaldi has joined Mears and Danny Sullivan on the team owned by Roger Penske. All told, the three Penske drivers have five Indianapolis 500 victories (Mears won in 1979, '84 and '88; Sullivan in '85). What's more, Fittipaldi is sitting on the pole for Sunday's race, having qualified at 225.301 mph, with Mears right next to him at 224.215 mph and Sullivan in ninth at 220.310 mph, despite having to make a weather-delayed qualifying run in very windy conditions last Saturday. However, on the inside of the third row, in the No. 7 position, will be Unser at 220.920 mph. Little Al, who qualified on the same day as Sullivan, may have the fastest car at the Speedway—in practice he had a 228.502 lap, the best ever turned at the Brickyard.
The sixth-fastest qualifying time (222.025 mph) went to Mario Andretti, the only driver besides Fittipaldi to have won the Formula One world championship (Fittipaldi's titles came in 1972 and '74, Andretti's in 78), the Indy 500 (Andretti won in '69) and the Indy Car title (Andretti has won the championship four times). That international hat trick might demand drivers with international backgrounds. Andretti, 50, lived in Italy until age 15, when he was brought to Nazareth, Pa. There he cut his racing teeth on jalopies, dreaming of the day he would be going back to Europe to compete on the Grand Prix circuit.
Fittipaldi grew up in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo, Brazil. His father was a motor sports journalist and broadcaster. "My father's of Italian background," says the 43-year-old Fittipaldi. "I have Italian blood, hot blood. My mother is Russian, the other way. I can be, too. I can be very cold when I need to be—under pressure, for example. That's a big advantage. But still, many things scare me—heights, roller coasters, sharks—anything you don't have control over. But to be a good racing driver you have to be brave, and you have to be afraid. You have to balance the brave and the afraid."
The soft cadences and vivid imagery of Fittipaldi's speech are captivating, even though English ranks third among the five languages he speaks, both in preference and fluency. Except when it comes to cursing, for which Fittipaldi says English has no equal. Though he rates his Italian no higher than fourth in proficiency (his other languages are Portuguese, Spanish and French), it is his favorite. "I love to speak Italian," he says. "So romantic. My heart is Italian. Italians are very artistic, the cars, everything. When I go to Italy, I feel home."
No matter the language, Fittipaldi's favorite word is love, and it usually follows I. Dark eyes flash expressively as he speaks of his enthusiasms, and his face frequently composes itself around a grin. His graying hair is balding on top, and it flows long in the back. His wife, Teresa, likes to tie it in a ponytail when they're around the house.
He and Teresa met in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo in 1982, when she was ending a long relationship and he was separated from his first wife and their three children. They noticed each other at a health club, where both of them had been working out twice a day to forget their troubles. "Emerson was a big national hero in Brazil, and I'd seen him on television," says Teresa. "Emerson can talk with his eyes. He has a very deep look, very strong look, very powerful. You never see Emerson look someplace else when he talks to you; he always looks straight into your eyes."
Almost inevitably those unwavering eyes seek the right line, whether it be through a corner at a racetrack or in the design of a piece of racing equipment. Fittipaldi's accomplishments as a designer have nearly kept pace with his driving feats. While racing motorcycles and go-karts in Brazil at 17, he came up with a leather-wrapped aluminum steering wheel for his mother's sedan. So many people wanted the wheel that six months later Emerson had 15 employees turning out steering wheels in his parents' garage. That was the genesis of Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories, which today is a thriving company, now based in Miami.
When he was 19, Fittipaldi and his older brother, Wilson, codesigned and manufactured a go-kart. Next they built and sold Formula Vee cars. Emerson proved the worth of their designs by driving the cars to championships. The money he earned from the sale of the racing vehicles financed Emerson's expedition to race in Europe in 1969.
Three years later, while driving for Team Lotus, he became the youngest driver ever to win the Formula One world title. He won again in 1974, after switching to Team McLaren. By 1976, when he and Wilson formed their own Formula One team, Emerson was reported to be the world's highest-paid athlete, with an annual income of $1.7 million. Six years later, he would retire to Brazil, virtually broke.
The Fittipaldi race team never jelled. Emerson was tied for 16th in Formula One points in 1976, and for the next three years he was 12th, ninth and 21st, respectively. In 1980, Fittipaldi gave up driving to concentrate on managing the team. He decided to build his own car rather than buy chassis from others.
The result, says Fittipaldi, "was a piece of art. Every part of the car was fantastic. I spent more than half a million dollars. Big mistake. When we put it on the track for the first time, I drove it. The chassis felt like a banana. Unbelievable. Undrivable. Its handling was impossible. Its looks were beautiful, but it was a disaster. That was the car that killed my team.
"So much money, so much effort, so much prestige—everything gone," he continues. "It wrecked my marriage, too. It was tough on the ego, yes, but the hardest part was family problems, because I had my brother involved. In six years of my life with that team, I lived 12."
The legacy Fittipaldi left behind in Formula One racing went beyond his achievements as a driver and his failures as an owner. He revolutionized driving technique by redesigning the steering wheel. His version had finger grips at the nine o'clock and three o'clock positions, instead of at the traditional 10 and two o'clock spots. Not only did Fittipaldi's innovation give the driver better leverage on the wheel and better sensitivity to the road, but it also reduced fatigue by moving his shoulders farther back into the seat. Fittipaldi's wheel is still the best-selling steering wheel for open-wheeled race cars in the world.
His latest creation is a seat for the Penske-Chevy, which he will drive at Indy. It's a carbon-fiber cocoon, cradling and hugging the driver from his knees to his shoulders. The object of the seat is similar to that of the Fittipaldi steering wheel: to make the driver more a part of the car. "You feel the car with your whole body," he says.
Behind the wheel of his Mercedes 560SEL, sprung low over the latest Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories mag-type wheels, Fittipaldi pulls up to the big wooden gate protecting his home on Miami's Biscayne Bay. A cellular phone is pressed to his ear. He is trying to wind up another busy day at the office located on the 25th floor of, a waterfront condominium. Fittipaldi continues to have business interests back in Brazil, including 27 Hugo Boss men's clothing franchises, a Mercedes dealership and a 200,000-tree orange grove.
While driving and dealing, Fittipaldi also has been thinking about his new Lear 35. He loves the idea of taking his family with him to races. In his mind, he is designing a seven-seat configuration outfitted in beige leather.
The Fittipaldi household consists of two children from his first marriage—Juliana, 15, and Jayson, 14, (Tatiana, eight, lives with her mother in Johannesburg, South Africa)—and three-year-old Joana, whose mother is Teresa. Because he has been away for two weeks testing the 1990 Penske-Chevy, this afternoon at home will be strictly family time. He plans to spend it boating. The craft is a powerful Wellcraft Scarab Fittipaldi Limited Edition, a 34-foot Deep-Vee offshore powerboat. Its cost is in the six figures.
Emerson and Teresa are Catholics who also maintain an open mind about astrology and the power of crystals. "I believe in much more than the physical," he says. "I believe in the spirit part—the aura of the personality. We have so much more power than we know." Teresa has also had a lot of practical experience with crystals and gems. She was working as a jewelry designer when she met Emerson, and her latest gold earrings will be sold by The Sharper Image, the San Francisco-based retailer of accoutrements for the contemporary good life.
Fittipaldi's diet is more New Age than Yuppie. When he travels alone he often packs his lunch, which might consist of black sesame rice crackers, granola, filberts and carrots, washed down with mineral water. Says Teresa, "Since he started to eat this kind of food two years ago—no meat, no dairy—it's unbelievable how he has calmed down."
At one time Fittipaldi didn't merely pay heed to stars and crystals; he was downright superstitious. That all but stopped after a dinner conversation with Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary Argentine who won five Grand Prix championships in the 1950s. "He will always be my idol," says Fittipaldi. "He told me he was very superstitious, until after the Swiss Grand Prix in 1954. The night before the race, he went out with his wife to drive around the track. Right in the middle of a straight, a black cat crossed his path, and he hit it and killed it. On the racing track! If you're superstitious, you will be sure you will die in the race.
"He couldn't sleep the whole night. In the morning it was raining. He was certain now. He said, 'That's it, today's my day.' When Fangio started the race, he said he was so tense, he could not drive right. But he concentrated on the race and won. No more superstitions. It was good Fangio told me that. Now I don't care. The only thing I do is always to climb in the racing car my right foot first."
After his Formula One team went bust, Fittipaldi returned to Sa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬µ Paulo to what he thought would be the quiet life of an orange grower. However, after a year of tending seedlings he was coaxed into entering some races for Super-Karts, which are pocket rockets capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 in 100 yards. He loved it. He won nine of 11 races. "It was like being born again," he says. "I feel the joy of the sport again."
The next spring Fittipaldi accepted a ride in the 1984 Miami Grand Prix for sports cars. He and Teresa fell in love with Miami. Weeks later, when an offer came to drive an Indy Car, Fittipaldi jumped at it. He also received a firm push. Teresa told him, "It is the opportunity for you to shine again. It is in your blood. It is in your mind." In 1984, after five CART races, he joined the powerful Pat Patrick team.
"One thing I really appreciate in Emerson is that he's very humble," says Teresa. "To be two times world champion in Formula One, with all the glory and everything that means—and then to go back to karts and enjoy himself. He had to start from the beginning again. We did not have much money when we came to race in America. I remember Indianapolis that May. We lived in a cheap apartment there in a poor neighborhood. Now he's with the best team again."
While driving his first four seasons for Patrick, Fittipaldi won six Indy Car races, mostly on CART's road circuits, because he was still learning the subtleties of oval-track racing. Then came the successes of last season, in cars that Penske had sold to Patrick Racing. Between the 1989 and '90 seasons, it was announced that Fittipaldi would be joining the Penske team. "It was a very delicate situation," says Fittipaldi, making it clear that he kept to the sidelines as Penske, Patrick and a major sponsor wheeled and dealed. "My decision was to figure out where I would have the best chance to win races. I think it would be with Penske. It was quite clear that Patrick was not going to have a new Penske chassis this year."
The man behind Fittipaldi's switch was Teddy Mayer, who either owned or managed Team MacLaren from 1964 through '83. Mayer's rèsumè includes two Formula One world championships and two Indy 500 victories. For most of his career he was Penske's most formidable rival, but in 1987 Mayer went to work managing Penske Cars, Ltd. in England, where the team's Indy Cars are built.
Mayer believes that Fittipaldi might be the best race driver he has ever been associated with because of his scientific approach to the sport, his precise memory and his virtually crash-free record. Mayer helped Fittipaldi win the '74 world championship. He will run Fittipaldi's pit at Indy, while Penske oversees Mears's.
From the outside, it might seem that Penske is asking for trouble, what with the egos of three former Indy winners rubbing against one another. But Penske doesn't tolerate attitudes, and he insists that his drivers share all in detailed briefings after every practice session. In reality, Penske doesn't need a firm hand with this three-some, who are among the most respected drivers on the Indy Car circuit. Says Fittipaldi, "I'm so happy to be working with Rick because I'm learning so much from him on the oval tracks. And Danny is a very special driver on the road circuits."
Says Mears, "It'll be tougher to beat Fittipaldi now that he's with Penske, but you have to look at the positive side. Emerson's a good tester, and with his knowledge and expertise in developing cars, I'll be going faster, too. I'll have to race him, whether he's here or there. If we get to where all we have to worry about is each other, it'll be great."
There are many things Fittipaldi likes about racing in America. He loves the drivers' openness and relative camaraderie compared to that found on the Formula One circuit. "If you have a problem," he says, "after the race you look at the other guy's eyes and you discuss it. You wash your dirty clothes and it is finished, no bad feelings. That doesn't happen in Formula One.
"Here there is no——. The American mentality is very fair for any sport. Americans try to maintain the essence of sport. When the flag drops, the race always be a beautiful race. The sportsmanship always is there."
It was even there on Turn 3 of the 200th lap at Indy last year. As Fittipaldi raced past Little Al on his way to the finish line, Unser stood beside his crumpled car, applauding the man who had just defeated him with a daring and skillful maneuver. When Fittipaldi eventually pulled off his helmet, whose intricate paint scheme he had designed, one saw tears in his eyes. It had been a long, rough and unpredictable road that had taken a once-retired Formula One champion to Victory Lane in the Indianapolis 500.