Racing's new flag is Brazilian

Indy 500: Speeding toward the motor sport front, Brazil shows it has arrived, with four drivers in the top six slots.

Auto Racing

May 25, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - The Memorial Day holiday has become a three-day weekend in the United States and here, where the Indianapolis 500 is part of that celebration, the question is whether tomorrow may turn into a holiday in Brazil.

The impressive Brazilian presence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway includes pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira (Jun-CARE-a) and five other countrymen in the starting lineup for tomorrow's 86th Indianapolis 500. Four of them are among the top six qualifiers.

"People in Brazil use any excuse for a party. If I win this race, we make [a] weeklong holiday," said Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan with a wide smile. "I am proud there are so many of us, who are so good.

"I think in America you have football, baseball. We have nothing like that," he said. "I started racing at age 7. Now I have 20 years experience."

The four top qualifiers among the Brazilian drivers are Junqueira, Raul Boesel, Felipe Giaffone and Kanaan. Also competing are Gil de Ferran, Airton Dare and Helio Castroneves, who has endeared himself climbing the fence like Spiderman any time he wants to celebrate.

"The Brazilians are the most colorful young racing car drivers in the series," said veteran driver Eddie Cheever.

Their number is second in nationality only to the 18 Americans among the 33 competitors.

Junqueira is fifth and Kanaan 19th in the CART points race, while de Ferran, Castroneves and Giaffone are second, third and fourth in the Indy Racing League. Dare is tied for 12th. Boesel does not race full time.

"There probably are too many Brazilians for Americans. There are too many for me," joked Kanaan. "The others win all the championships and leave no money for me!"

Cheever was not laughing when he said he has heard comments from within the IRL about there being "too many" foreign drivers. He said he is incensed.

"Through my career, I drove for a German, an Italian, an English and a French team and was never shut out of a job because I was an American. There is a tendency here to provide racing seats for American drivers. I think that is very shortsighted."

For Cheever, performance is the bottom line, as for most of the top teams including A.J. Foyt. The legendary four-time Indy 500 winner has a Brazilian in the field.

"I had an American driver and he got hurt," said Foyt. "I put Dare in the car and he went from last to second and that impressed me.

"I always go for performance. That's how it should be and that's what you're seeing here."

How did the Portuguese-speaking country, known for its port city Rio de Janeiro, produce so many top drivers?

"We start very young in go-carts and advance," said Kanaan, who is listed as a rookie despite his experience because this is his first Indy 500.

The rush to go-carts was set off by Emerson Fittipaldi, who came here the first time in 1984. And though he finished 32nd, his personality, flamboyance and talent captivated many.

Former driver Chip Ganassi, currently the top owner in the business and the owner of Junqueira's car, remembers his own final year here as a driver. It was 1986, and Fittipaldi started next to him in a pink car with a pink umbrella blocking the sun.

"Certainly a lot of Brazilians in racing today can rest their foundation on top of Emerson," said Ganassi, who bought into Patrick racing in 1988 to be a major part of the ownership when Fittipaldi won the CART Series championship and the Indy 500 in 1989.

"The business model in racing is about winning," Ganassi said. "Until they start scoring points for what country they're from, owners will just keep picking the best drivers."

"I think Brazil was very lucky to have Emerson Fittipaldi and then Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna," said Junqueira. "In 20 years, the Brazilians won eight times the Formula One world championship. That makes auto racing very popular in Brazil."

There, soccer is the No. 1 sport. Auto racing is second. Tennis, with the emergence of two-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, is third.

That wasn't always so, said Boesel, 44, who will start on the outside of the front row tomorrow.

"Back in my [childhood] days, like my parents thought motor racing was for playboys, you know what I mean, that he cannot make a living off that," he said. "And today is different."

Robbie Buhl, who is from Cleveland, will start in the front row and be surrounded by Brazilians. "In Brazil, soccer and motor sports, those are the passions," he said.

"In this country we've got a lot more than just motor sports and soccer. The NBA, NHL, baseball, a lot of sports young kids can come up and play. It's just that much broader here and not as much focus on motor sports."

In the United States, American basketball players are exported around the world. In Brazil, it is soccer players and race car drivers.

Kenny Brack, a native of Karlstad, Sweden, laughs and says, "Just get rid of them, they're too good.

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