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Emerson Fittipaldi Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information


Brazilian race car driver

Brazilian racing car driver Emerson Fittipaldi survived the deadliest period of auto racing history to emerge as the most successful driver of both the European Formula One (F1) and American Indy leagues. After he almost single-handedly unraveled his promising career in F1, he switched his focus to American racing, and managed to pull off an entire second career there.

Fittipaldi was born December 12, 1946 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His father, Wilson, was a motor racing journalist and commentator. He started racing in his older brother Wilson's go-kart. Fittipaldi's brother also was an F1 driver. Wilson Sr. was commentating the first time his sons competed together, and made no effort to conceal his pride when they were racing in the first and second positions.

Fittipaldi stepped off the plane from Sao Paulo to London in the spring of 1969, to race in the Formula Ford and F3 series. Within weeks, he was winning British Formula Ford races. He graduated to F1 in 1970, racing for the Lotus team. Fittipaldi was forced to assume Lotus team leadership in his rookie season when former leader Jochen Rindt died in a crash. Fittipaldi remained with Lotus through the 1973 season. He fell into a slump during the 1971 season after he crashed in his road car on his way home and broke several ribs, and finished in sixth place over all. After just one F1 win to his name, he came back strong in 1972, becoming the youngest driver ever to win the F1 world championship. He won the F1 title again in 1974 after switching to the McLaren team. By 1975, Fittipaldi looked as if he would become a legendary F1 driver. But his F1 career began to unravel, after he made a few questionable decisions.

Fittipaldi, nicknamed "Emmo," is known for his meticulously precise driving style. He also is a runner and used to train with the Brazilian soccer team to keep fit, and monitored his high-carbohydrate diet carefully. He also was a leader in the campaign to improve notoriously dangerous F1 track and car safety. He stopped his car after one lap in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix to

Emerson Fittipaldi

protest what he felt were dangerous track conditions. The race continued until another driver's car flew off the road, killing four onlookers.

Fittipaldi made the first of his questionable career choices at the end of the 1975 season, after finishing second behind Niki Lauda in the championship. He chose to leave the McLaren team in favor of the startup Copersucar team, which was founded by his brother, Wilson Fittipaldi, and backed by the Brazilian state-run sugar cartel. The move would mark the premature end of his glory days on the F1 circuit. His Copersucar car proved uncompetitive and unreliable, and he finished the season a miserable 16th in the championship in 1976, 12th in 1977, ninth in 1978, and 21st in 1979. A strong second place finish behind Ferrari's Carlos Reutemann in 1978 at the Brazilian Grand Prix was one of the few highlights of Fittipaldi's career from this point on. Fittipaldi retired from the European circuit in 1980, intending to manage the family team, but the Fittipaldi Automotive team, lacking credibility and capital, folded in 1982. All told, Fittipaldi ran in 144 Grands Prix, winning fourteen.

Feeling that he had more good racing in him, Fittipaldi set his sights on racing in America. He still longed to do "what I do best in life—making a racing car go very fast," he is quoted as saying in Sports Illustrated. He joined the American Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Indy-Car series in 1984. He finished fifth in his debut Indy-Car race, the Long Beach Grand Prix, and knew he had made the right choice, even if American race fans may not have agreed. He was greeted with snickers when he showed up in 1984 at America's most prestigious race, the Indianapolis 500, in a pink car. "There was laughter at this supposedly over-the-hill foreigner in his flashy machine," Ed Hinton wrote in Sports Illustrated.

Fittipaldi resurrected his racing career and returned to racing full time in 1985 on the Patrick Racing team. He went on to take the CART championship in 1989, and won the Indy 500 in 1989 and 1993. His 1989 Indy 500 win will go down as one of the most dramatic finishes in history. He and Al Unser Jr. were battling each other at 220 mph for the top spot in the final moments of the race when Unser hit the wall, leaving Fittipaldi to take the checkered flag. In 1990, the reinvigorated driver joined Team Penske, becoming successful enough to remain a permanent member of the team until 1995, when he joined the reformed Penske Hogan Racing team.

When he started in F1 in 1970, the odds were that, of the top twenty-one drivers, three would not live to see the end of a season. He watched many of his friends and colleagues die on the track. Since then, track and car safety has improved radically, in great part because of Fittipaldi, who campaigned for safety. But he defied the odds for ten years in F1, and then managed to live through another sixteen years racing in America.

In 1996, Fittipaldi walked out of a hospital after surviving a crash that almost left him completely paralyzed. It took a team of neurosurgeons to repair the crushed vertebra and destabilized spinal cord he suffered in a fiery crash at Michigan International Speedway. "It was incredible," he recalled in and interview with Runner's World. "It sounded like a bomb going off."

Fittipaldi took the accident as his cue to quit. He retired in 1996, but has remained very much involved with auto racing with his business ventures. He owns Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories, and has owned the lucrative Brazilian TV rights to the CART FedEx Championship Series since 1985. As a consultant for Chrysler and Well-craft, he designed a high-performance boat called the Fittipaldi Scarab. He is a spokesman for British Airways, Ericsson, Hugo Boss, Mercedes-Benz, and Michelin, among others. He also owns hundreds of thousands of orange trees on a plantation in Brazil. Fittipaldi was seriously injured in 1997 when he crashed a small plane near his farm, but regained movement in his legs. He and his wife, Teresa, have homes in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Key Biscayne, Florida. In 13 seasons as a CART driver, Fittipaldi earned more than $14 million in prize winnings.

Sketch by Brenna Sanchez

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