Flow of top drivers has gone from a trickle to a gusher, with children 8, 9 intent on competing.
By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002
INDIANAPOLIS -- Traditionally, good old American milk is the drink of choice in Victory Circle at the Indianapolis 500. The way things are going around here, this year's could be a cup o' joe. They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, y'know.
Brazil's cup runneth over -- and very fast -- at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Seven Brazilians are in Sunday's 33-car field. Four are among the five speediest drivers. And that doesn't include last year's 1-2 finishers, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran.
When Emerson Fittipaldi won Formula One world championships in 1972 and '74, millions of Brazilians were watching. When Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna followed suit, the trickle of potential F1 drivers became a gusher.
And when Fittipaldi won the Indy 500 in 1989, and again in 1993, the flow turned north, to CART and the IRL, the dominant open-wheel circuits in the United States.
"It all started with Emerson," said Raul Boesel, starting his 13th Indy 500, this one on the outside of the front row. "In Brazil it's very limited, the number of heroes we have. That is why football (the kind we call soccer) and motorsports are so big there compared with the United States."
Said Felipe Giaffone, starting behind pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira on the inside of Row 2: "When Emerson came over here, he was the one who pretty much opened our eyes. When I was 14, I only wanted to do F1. I knew about the Indy 500, I knew it was huge, but that was about all I knew. Then Emerson opened the door."
Junqueira was first on the track when qualifying began on May 11, and his four-lap average speed of 231.342 mph stood up, putting him on the pole (inside front row). That hadn't happened since 1990 when Fittipaldi was first off the line and, by day's end, first in line.
Tony Kanaan is next to Giaffone, in the middle of Row 2, and Castroneves and de Ferran are on the inside and middle of Row 5. All four are from Sao Paulo. The last Brazilian to qualify was Airton Dare, on the outside of Row 10.
All of them began, as almost every open-wheel racer does, in go-karts. They're not the karts you see children driving in amusement parks around the United States. There are various classes, some bigger and more powerful. And the Brazilian kids behind the wheel often aren't driving just for fun.
As youth soccer leagues, Little League and others are the first step toward professional careers, go-karting is the starting line for future open-wheel racers.
"It's hard to believe, but you have 6-year-old, 7-year-old boys driving there wheel to wheel," Boesel said. "So, when they get to 15, 16, they're already in Formula Fords and open-wheel racing. They already have almost 10 years of experience in racing when they're 16 years old."
And the competition can be fierce.
"What is the average age that most American kids start driving? Fifteen? Sixteen? By the time we're 8, 9, we've got the competition in our mind," Boesel said.
And just as some Little League parents plague youth baseball in the United States, parents in Brazil living vicariously through their children can wind up pushing them into a life they don't want.
"Unfortunately," Junqueira said, "you can see fathers pressuring their 10-, 12-year-old kids."
That's because good racers with the right kind of backing can earn a lot of money quickly.
"Back in my day," Boesel, 44, said, "my parents thought motor racing was for playboys, that you could not make a living off that.
"Today is different. I think a lot of parents push their kids because they may be frustrated that they cannot do it themselves. You see young kids that have a lot of potential but end up with so much pressure from their parents that they waste their career."
And unlike here, where baseball and football fields sprout everywhere, where all you need is a rim and a bit of pavement to get up a game of basketball, there aren't many go-kart tracks in Brazil.
Junqueira grew up in Belo Horizonte, population about 4-million. The city didn't have a track. "I used to go to the parking lot of a soccer stadium to practice," he said. That's only the first hurdle. "The other problem," Giaffone said, "is that we don't have the money in open-wheel racing. If you want to do it, by 19, 20, if you want to be really good, you have to be out of Brazil. You have to change your life completely, to move away from your family."
But with talent and luck, the travail can pay off handsomely.
"The kids back in Brazil watch what we do here," said Castroneves, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, "and they dream about it, like we dreamed watching Fittipaldi and Senna and others. From seeing us here, they know it's possible."
-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.