Driver Emerson Fittipaldi's survival of not one but two glorious
racing careers spanning 26 years--first in Formula One's
deadliest era and then in Indy Cars' fastest era--is astounding.
Last week came his crowning miracle, and he wisely took it as
his cue to quit. Fittipaldi, a 49-year-old Brazilian, walked out
of a Miami hospital after having avoided quadriplegia by "less
than a millimeter," according to one of the neurosurgeons who
repaired the crushed vertebra and destabilized spinal cord
Fittipaldi suffered in a fiery Indy Car crash at Michigan
International Speedway on July 28.
Even as he announced last week that he would not race again,
Fittipaldi immediately hedged, as all drivers are wont to do
when facing retirement. The close call "is a sign to stop," he
said. But he also said that he has not yet made the final
"When I started in Formula One, in 1970, the odds were that of
the top 21 drivers, three would not live until the end of the
year," Fittipaldi once said. He defied those harrowing odds
through 10 years, 14 Grand Prix victories and two world
championships, in 1972 and '74. But with so many friends killed
in racing accidents--Francois Cevert, Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert
and, most of all, "Ronnie Peterson, my best friend in motor
racing"--Fittipaldi spearheaded demands for safer cars and tracks.
In 1975 he parked in protest after one lap of the Spanish Grand
Prix because he was disgusted with dangerous track conditions.
The race continued, and when Rolf Stommelen's car went flying
off the road, four onlookers were killed. Fittipaldi's point was
sadly made, and the move toward safety was on.
Fittipaldi retired from F/1 in 1980, but back home in Sao Paulo
he fretted to wife, Teresa, that he still longed to do again
"what I do best in life--make the racing car go very fast." Two
years later he showed up at the Indy 500 with a pink car, and
there was laughter at this supposedly over-the-hill foreigner in
his flashy machine. But in 1985 Fittipaldi won his first Indy
Car race and in '89 he came out on top in one of the most
dramatic of all Indy 500 finishes, a 220-mph duel of
brinksmanship that left Al Unser Jr. against the wall and
Fittipaldi taking the checkered flag under caution. He won the
CART championship that year and another Indy 500 in '93,
establishing himself as history's most successful driver of both
F/1 and Indy Cars.
If racers are the ultimate gamblers, then Fittipaldi will go
down as the best there ever was at knowing when to hold 'em and
when to fold 'em. Surely that savvy will not fail him now that
he has pulled off his biggest miracle.