Fittipaldi hungry for Indianapolis success

May 28, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Emerson Fittipaldi is riding through Gasoline Alley on the back of a golf cart and his fans are jogging, no, running full speed behind him.

They are reaching out with photographs, T-shirts, programs, scraps of paper. They are hurling pens at him, as they stretch toward the ever-retreating Fittipaldi. And he is signing, looking up at the panting faces, then back down and signing some more.

This is how it is for the two-time Formula One champion, one-time IndyCar champ and the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

This is how it always has been.

Now he is in his garage. The door is closed, and he is sitting in an alcove, unwrapping his lunch.

He pulls out a large carafe of fresh carrot juice.

"You will have some?" he offers. "It is very nutritious."

He is 46 years old. His craggy face looks its age and more, but his brilliant smile is ageless.

"I am having more fun now than ever in my career," he says, in his soft Brazilian accent. "I appreciate more my sport, the fans, the people I am working with. The team.

"I realize how much effort they all put in to what they do."

Fittipaldi also puts all his efforts into what he does.

"I always did," he says. "From lap one to the last lap, I drive as hard as I can."

When the 78th Indianapolis 500 goes green tomorrow, he will be on the outside of the front row. Teammate Al Unser Jr. will be on the pole, and fellow Brazilian Raul Boesel will be between them.

But Fittipaldi is unique among the 33 starters. He is the defending race winner and the only man in the field to have won this race more than once.

"I dream to again win Indianapolis," he says. "But I think more than a dream to win, it is the love and motivation for the sport. Love is motivation. More than winning, I love the sport."

He is on the cutting edge here in his Penske/Mercedes, which has caused controversy with its exploitation of the stock block rule that has given it 200 horsepower more than any other car here.

Fittipaldi does not see any problems with this. To the Penske team, it is simply being smart, simply playing the game better than anyone else.

"We followed the rules, did our homework. Now I am very anxious to see how the engine does in the race," Fittipaldi says.

He reaches deeper into his lunch case.

"Soybean," he says. "You would like?"

He has been coming to racetracks too long to put up with track restaurants and snack bars. His wife, Teresa, cooks and makes his lunch daily.

Consistency and tradition are part of Fittipaldi's makeup. Every year he comes to Indianapolis, he rents the same house for the month. It is far enough away from the speedway to be peaceful and private.

He would go crazy, say members of his crew, if he had to live the way his teammate, Al Unser Jr., chooses to live here.

Unser arrives with his wife and children in their mobile home. They set up residence just beyond the garages. For Unser, it is perfect. It is his home away from home. He can roll out of bed and right into his race car.

Fittipaldi is more laid back and wrapped up in home, wife and his five children. To live in a motor home at the speedway would be suffocation itself.

"Al Jr. comes from the tradition of racing," says Fittipaldi. "He grew up, right here, playing in the infield. I raced against Al Sr., and Bobby Unser for many years. I have so much respect for them and I know Little Al, I saw him growing. It creates a bind, you know. It's very hard to explain."

It is hard to explain, because they are teammates and competitors. In 1989, Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. came through the third turn with less than two laps to go side-by-side.

Neither gave way. They bumped. Al Jr. lost control, hit the outside wall and spun into the infield grass. When Fittipaldi came past to take the green flag for his first 500 victory, Unser was standing beside the racetrack giving him what many thought was a cynical thumbs-up.

Now they are both Penske teammates. They are both on the front row tomorrow. They are tied with each other for the PPG IndyCar series championship points lead.

"You've really got to give up a little bit to receive a little bit," says Unser Jr., in his first season of Penske teamwork. "But I've always been a team player. The thing with Emmo and me, that's behind us. We're great friends, and off the track we look at each other as being part of each other's crew. But on the racetrack, we're still competitors."

Fittipaldi pulls a multigrain bread sandwich from his stash. It is thick with tomato, lettuce, cheese and cold cuts. He offers to share this too, and then shrugs.

"I was just in Baltimore," he says. "My son, Jayson, is going to go to school there. To the Maryland Institute of Art and Design.

"It is funny the way life goes. My father was a motorsports journalist on the radio and television in Brazil. I am a race car driver. My son, a designer, an artist.

"I think all of us have been artists in our own way."

And he reaches again into his seemingly bottomless lunch box.

"This," he says, pulling out an orange, "You will eat!"

Fittipaldi again flashes his winning smile. His lunch is all but finished. His concentration again turning toward being ready for tomorrow's race.

"We all expect to win Sunday," he says. "I will be driving very hard to win. I will go for it. Yes, I will go for it. If Little Al and I are in the same situation you saw in 1989, it will be the same. I will not back off -- and neither will he."

RACE FACTS

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

When: Tomorrow, noon

TV: Channels 13, 7

Pole sitter: Al Unser Jr., 228.011 mph

Defending champion: Emerson Fittipaldi

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