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Fernandez standing tall after 2002

Mexican driver returns after accidents that cost him races, and a half-inch.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Adrian Fernandez slipped into the cockpit, buckled his harness and fastened his helmet. After four months of rehabilitation, he could not wait to hit the track for a January test.

But something was wrong.

Fernandez, owner-driver of the No.51 car, called to his mechanic and complained. Someone must have fastened the wrong wind screen to the car because this one obstructed his sight line. It was a half-inch too tall. Actually, Fernandez was too short.

Injured in an accident last year at Surfer's Paradise in Australia, Fernandez sustained a compression fracture of two vertebrae in his neck when a competitor's car landed on him. Once listed as 5 feet 8, Fernandez is now a half-inch shorter.

"My girlfriend says it's more," he said.

Fernandez, a 37-year-old Mexican, will start third today in the Grand Prix. Last year, he missed four races because of injury. Involved in two major accidents, he simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I had the two biggest accidents of my life," said Fernandez, an 11-year veteran with seven wins and three poles. "Both of them could have cost my life."

At Vancouver in July, his car was demolished when Bruno Junqueira plowed through the chassis, leaving Fernandez with two hairline fractures near his left pelvis. For that he missed one race.

At Surfer's Paradise in October, heavy rain made for treacherous conditions. A multi-car crash on the start caused Toranosuke Takagi's car to go airborne and land atop Fernandez. When doctors were ready to release him, Fernandez insisted something was wrong. He was right.

"It's called an interior compression fracture," Fernandez said. "The break is from the inside, not the outside. They break and compress. They heal, but they don't go back the way they were."

So, Fernandez is now 5 feet 7 1/2.

He also is eager to put 2002 behind him. The series' only owner-driver, he was off to a good start with two poles and two top-five finishes but finished 14th in the standings because of the missed events.

He spent the past five months in rehabilitation, unable to do any racing or heavy exercise until the vertebrae healed completely. That took until late January. Though the season starts today, Fernandez is playing catchup.

"It's getting better," Fernandez said of his strength. "It's not what I would like, but it takes time. The type of exercising I was doing was very different from what I'm used to. I was not building any muscle."

That could play a factor today, because the twisting street circuit will test Fernandez's stamina and upper-body strength. In practice sessions, he has had the most trouble on fresh tires, when the grip is strongest and the steering wheel heaviest.

"I've been trying to make that deficit up as quick as possible in the last few weeks, but it's difficult," Fernandez said. "I'm not 100 percent. I hope I can get into a rhythm in the race. It's been a while since I've been in a race car and I'm just happy to be here."

At any height.

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