Emer­son Fit­ti­paldi

He was fast on the track, so he was fast-tracked to the top

Edmonton Journal - - SPECIAL DRIVING FEATURE - By STEVEN REIVE

All weren’t he wanted an op­tion. to be He was knew the that best early the and world thought had ever about seen. it of­ten. Mis­takes

nick­named So it wasn’t “Rato” much (Por­tuguese of a sur­prise for mouse) when a had 16-year-old a change of Brazil­ian heart about boy what he wanted to do in life.

Rato and his brother “Ti­grao” (big tiger) were out rac­ing boats when Rato’s brother flipped at 120 km/h and landed up­side down.

In a flash, Emer­son Fit­ti­paldi’s ca­reer was de­cided.

“It was a mir­a­cle that my brother sur­vived,” he once told his bi­og­ra­pher, “and from then on, I knew I was given a sec­ond chance to make the most of my life.”

The tale of one of the great­est rac­ers of all time be­gins in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the Fit­ti­paldi broth­ers chang­ing course and go­ing to karting, and ends in Vic­tory Lane around the world.

The Mouse would be okay, af­ter all. And in the end he would even have a new nick­name: Emmo.

Born on the 12th day of De­cem­ber in 1946, Fit­ti­paldi was a world cham­pion in open-wheel rac­ing, from For­mula One to the best North Amer­i­can cir­cuits, twice win­ning the In­di­anapo­lis 500.

The youngest son of prom­i­nent Brazil­ian mo­tor sports jour­nal­ist and ra­dio com­men­ta­tor Wil­son Fit­ti­paldi Sr., and his wife Juzy, a Pol­ish refugee, he was named af­ter Amer­i­can au­thor and philoso­pher, Ralph Waldo Emer­son. Emmo was pretty tal­ented, even in his teens. The boys fired up their own en­ter­prise, which be­gan with a steer­ing wheel that Emer­son made for his mother’s car, then de­vel­oped into a thriv­ing cus­tom-car ac­ces­sory busi­ness. Then came Fit­ti­paldi Karts, built and raced by the broth­ers, though more suc­cess­fully by Emer­son, who be­came a Brazil­ian kart cham­pion at the age of 18. In 1967, when the Fitti paldis turned to con­struct­ing Volk­swa­gen-pow­ered For­mula Vee sin­gle seaters, Emer­son drove one of them to the Brazil­ian cham­pi­onship.

It was all full speed ahead. And the speed of his rac­ing suc­cess at home prompted Emer­son to aban­don the pur­suit of a me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing de­gree and com­pete abroad. In 1969, alone and un­able to speak any­thing other than his na­tive Por­tuguese, he ar­rived in Eng­land, bought a For­mula Ford and was an im­me­di­ate win­ner.

A step up to For­mula Three pro­duced sim­i­larly im­pres­sive re­sults and a re­ward in the form of a Lo­tus For­mula Two con­tract for 1970. Quickly a top F2 con­tender, he was given a long-term con­tract by Lo­tus boss Colin Chap­man, who eased him into his For­mula One team near the end of the 1970 sea­son. The pro­mo­tion, in a third Lo­tus as un­der­study to reg­u­lar driv­ers Jochen Rindt and John Miles, was in­tended to pro­vide fur­ther sea­son­ing for a driver who had leapfrogged up the rac­ing lad­der with stag­ger­ing speed.

But tragedy changed ev­ery­thing.

Hav­ing made his For­mula One de­but in the 1970 British Grand Prix, Emer­son then fin­ished fourth in Ger­many and also ran well in Aus­tria. Then came the ill-fated Ital­ian Grand Prix at Monza, where Jochen Rindt was killed in a crash dur­ing prac­tice. Ear­lier that day Emmo had also crashed at high speed but was un­hurt, though se­verely shaken. His re­main­ing team­mate, John Miles, was so up­set at Monza that he left For­mula One rac­ing for good.

Emmo had three cham­pi­onship races on his re­sume and was now lead­ing Team Lo­tus.

“Pretty im­pres­sive re­spon­si­bil­ity at that age,” his bi­og­ra­phy would re­veal.

In the next race he achieved the best pos­si­ble re­sult, win­ning the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y., to re­ju­ve­nate the dev­as­tated team and guar­an­tee that the 1970 driv­ing ti­tle would go posthu­mously to Rindt.

Armed with what was ar­guably the great­est For­mula One de­sign at the time, the Lo­tus 72D, Fit­ti­paldi proved un­stop­pable in 1972 as he won five of 11 races and eas­ily won the F1 Driv­ers’ Cham­pi­onship over Jackie Ste­wart.

At age 25 he was then the youngest cham­pion in F1 his­tory (the record was topped by Fer­nando Alonso at age 24).

team, where he Fit­ti­paldi had three even­tu­ally vic­to­ries left in Lo­tus 1974 to and sign beat with out the Clay promis­ing Regaz­zoni McLaren in a close Then, bat­tle at the for height his sec­ond of his cham­pi­onship. F1 suc­cess, Fit­ti­paldi shocked ev­ery­one by leav­ing McLaren Fit­ti­paldi Au­to­mo­tive to race for team. older brother Wil­son Fit­ti­paldi’s Cop­er­su­car-spon­sored

qual­ify It was for hardly three a races world-class in his time or­ga­ni­za­tion there. He and re­mained he strug­gled, with the even team fail­ing for five to sea­sons rac­ing at but the only end man­aged of 1980, ad­mit­ting a best fin­ish his last of sec­ond. two years Emmo in For­mula de­cided One to re­tire were from very un­happy.

strug­gled He was only for an­other 33, but had two been years rac­ing with min­i­mal in For­mula spon­sor­ship, One for a decade. be­fore go­ing The team into re­ceiver­ship at the end of 1982.

Two years later he made a re­mark­able come­back, not in For­mula One but in the Indy Car open-wheel North Amer­i­can se­ries. He soon be­came a crowd favourite with his open love of rac­ing and his gra­cious at­ti­tude to his fel­low driv­ers.

Emmo’s smooth style and ex­pe­ri­ence led to two In­di­anapo­lis 500 vic­to­ries on that fear­some track.

The sec­ond vic­tory would be mem­o­rable, not for what hap­pened on the track, but for him break­ing Indy vic­tory lane tradition when he drank a cel­e­bra­tory bot­tle of orange juice in­stead of the tra­di­tional bot­tle of milk. He was only the sec­ond driver to not drink milk at Indy since the tradition was founded in 1936.

Fit­ti­paldi owned sev­eral orange groves in his na­tive Brazil, and wanted to pro­mote the cit­rus in­dus­try. He was widely crit­i­cized and ridiculed for the ac­tion, even though he later took a sip of milk.

He fi­nally re­tired for good af­ter suf­fer­ing neck in­juries in a crash at the start of the US 500 in Michi­gan in 1996 and later back in­juries in a small-air­plane crash. To­day he con­tin­ues his in­volve­ment in mo­tor­sports on mul­ti­ple lev­els and is loved by fans on two con­ti­nents.

Rato be­came Emmo, who be­came a cult hero.

“I was ex­tremely lucky. I had some huge crashes and yet I am still here,” he said.

A long way from Brazil, but a global ci­ti­zen.

IL­LUS­TRATED BY ADAM YOUNG

Pro - f i l e s Au­to­mo­tive le­gends and heroes

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