Last December, at the Penske Racing Christmas party, the revelers
were treated to a little spontaneous entertainment when the
team's drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, donned dark
sunglasses and belted out (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. It was
an appropriate serenade, considering that Roger Penske, the
legendary car owner, was stuck on 99 career wins and that his
three-year victory drought was easily the longest of his 31-year
Now, six months after the Brazilians' impromptu turn as rock
stars, it's hard to believe they ever had such failure to lament.
De Ferran got Penske his 100th win at the Bosch Grand Prix in
Nazareth, Pa., on May 27, and the pair went on to win two of the
next three CART races as well. On the strength of those two
victories, de Ferran crept within one point of Roberto Moreno in
the driver standings, but Moreno extended his lead with a win on
Sunday in the Grand Prix of Cleveland while de Ferran finished
14th. In racing up the standings, de Ferran has earned lofty
praise from his boss. "He reminds me of Rick Mears with his
intensity and understanding of the car," says Penske. "Yet he's
not an overbearing driver who is telling the engineer how to set
the car up. He just gives great feedback."
In fact, it was smarts that earned the brainy 32-year-old de
Ferran his start in competitive racing. When he was 13, his main
hobby was tooling around his Sao Paolo neighborhood in the
go-kart he had been driving since he was five. "I was trying to
get into one of the best high schools in Sao Paolo," de Ferran
recalls. "You had to go for an admission test, and it wasn't
easy. My dad said, 'Look, if you pass the test, we'll buy a new
go-kart and go racing.' So I passed, he bought a new go-kart and
we went racing."
For the next several years de Ferran tried to balance schoolwork
and racing. His education included a three-month spell as an
exchange student on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in the dead of
winter. His racing accomplishments included the 1987 Brazilian
Formula Ford championship at the age of 19. By his first year of
college, when he had the opportunity to go to England to race
Formula Three cars, he had to choose between his studies and
full-time racing. "University wasn't something I didn't like,"
says de Ferran, who was studying to be an engineer. "The
decision was tough, but I said I'd give [racing] a couple of
years. That was 12 years ago."
He made his way to the CART circuit in 1995, winning rookie of
the year honors for Hall Racing, and when Penske had a seat open
up for the 2000 season, he gave it to de Ferran, largely because
he was impressed with the driver's attention to detail. "He
doesn't just fly in on a private plane, show up with his helmet
and go racing," says Penske.
De Ferran is all business at the track, but away from it he has
an engaging personality. Says Penske: "There's a fun, kidding
side of Gil you don't see here."
So come December, don't be surprised if de Ferran is again the
life of the company party. Chances are, however, he'll be singing
a different tune.