The Boys From…Colombia?

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After winning the Formula One World Championship twice, most thought that Emerson Fittipaldi had hung up his helmet for good when he called it quits following the 1980 season. After all, he was approaching thirty-four and had nothing else to prove. Plus, his last years driving for his brother’s team were hardly satisfying. It was time to head off into the sunset.

After four years, Fittipaldi decided to revive his driving career in the US driving in CART in 1984. The heralded Brazilian’s entrance into CART opened the floodgates for Brazilian drivers. The next year, fellow countryman Raul Boesel joined him in CART. After a partial season in 1985, 1986 saw Roberto Moreno make it a threesome for Brazilian drivers in the US-based series.

In 1989, Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship while driving for Pat Patrick. It wasn’t long after Fittipaldi’s success that more Brazilian drivers began to emerge.

Nelson Piquet tried his hand at the Indianapolis 500, albeit with disastrous results. He mangled his feet in a 1992 practice crash. After a full recovery, Piquet returned in 1993 with forgettable results. But the trend had started. Mauricio Gugelmin and Marco Greco surfaced in 1994. The next year saw Christian Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran and André Ribeiro join the Brazilian contingent. Had Emerson Fittipaldi made the race in 1995, that would have made six Brazilians on the starting grid that year.

When The Split came in 1996, most Brazilian drivers sided with CART. But by 2001, the Brazilians were back. Helio Castroneves won the 2001 Indianapolis 500 followed by countryman Gil De Ferran in second. Bruno Junqueira, Airton Daré and Felipe Giaffone all finished in the Top-Ten.

Throughout the last decade, most years saw five to seven Brazilian drivers on the starting grid at Indianapolis. 2010 saw no fewer than eight Brazilians start on the famed oval. After that, a strange phenomenon started taking place – the Brazilians were dwindling. 2011 had only four Brazilians in the starting field, although Bruno Junqueira would have been five, had his car not been sold out from under him after qualifying.

Even though famed Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello came to IndyCar to join his good friend Tony Kanaan in 2012 – there were only four Brazilians on the starting grid that year at Indianapolis. Last year, there were only three Brazilian starters at Indianapolis, with only two in the series full-time – Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. For 2014, it appears there will be only those same two Brazilians in the 500. At thirty-eight and thirty-nine respectively, both Castroneves and Kanaan are in the twilight of their career. Once they both call it a career, will there be any Brazilians in the wings to represent their proud country’s great legacy in American open-wheel racing?

As one South American country struggles to find their next great driver, another suddenly has begun to blossom.

Roberto Guerrero was once the only Colombian to find success in American open-wheel racing. The likeable Colombian won Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 with a second place finish. He followed that with a third in 1985, a fourth in 1986 and another second in 1987. In four starts, Guerrero’s average finish was 2.75. But a late season testing crash led to Guerrero being in a coma for seventeen days. Statistics show he was never the same after that. His next eleven Indianapolis starts resulted in an average finish of 24.54. Unfortunately, he is probably most noted for setting a track record as the pole sitter in 1992 and spinning out on the Parade Lap.

It wasn’t until 1999, when another Colombian came on the scene. A twenty-three year-old rookie named Juan Montoya won the CART championship and dominated the 2000 Indianapolis 500 on his way to victory in 2000, before heading off to Formula One and then NASCAR before returning to American open-wheel racing this season. Once Montoya left, Colombians weren’t given much thought. Throughout the last decade, there were no Colombian drivers but many Brazilians. Sebastian Saavedra arrived on the scene at the beginning of this decade, but has never had the results to draw much notice.

But Colombia made the rest of the racing world take notice last year, when Carlos Muñoz started second and finished second in his first Indianapolis 500. Had it not been for a late-race caution, it is quite likely that Muñoz could have been the one drinking milk instead of Tony Kanaan. Later last season, Muñoz was pressed into last-minute duty in substitute roles. This season, as a full-time rookie, Muñoz has been stellar in two starts for Andretti Autosport. He had a good race going at St. Petersburg, before getting caught up in the Will Power re-start mess. Then at Long Beach this past Sunday, he ran up front most of the day and finished on the podium with a third-place finish.

Carlos Huertas has joined his Columbian countrymen in the Verizon IndyCar Series for the first two races this season. While it looks as if he will not run the ovals this season, Huertas has been impressive in his first two starts – especially finishing in the Top-Ten at Long Beach.

Suddenly, the remaining two drivers from Brazil are outnumbered two-to-one. Kanaan and Castroneves have the pedigree and the resume, but Montoya, Muñoz, Huertas and Saavedra have the numbers. Montoya is roughly the same age as Kanaan and Castroneves, but Muñoz and Huertas are twenty-two, while Saavedra is twenty-three. Saavedra’s talent is questionable and Huertas is unproven. But after only five Verizon IndyCar starts, I’m ready to proclaim Muñoz as the real deal. Montoya has the skins on the wall but Muñoz has got the goods, mark my word

The Brazilians will be back. There is a deep love of motorsports in their land. The land that produced Ayrton Senna – perhaps the greatest driver ever – along with Fittipaldi, Castroneves and Kanaan; will produce many more champions. The lineage is too strong to prevent that from happening. But for now, Colombia has reason to celebrate their standing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “The Boys From…Colombia?”

  1. I would think that it is a matter of time before we see more talent from Brazil join the ranks of IndyCar. The series is supposed to return to Brazil next year(?) and it has a strong partnership with Apex-Brazil. Also, I understand that the series has strong television ratings in Brazil. I’m glad about the Columbian drivers, but I expect to see drivers from Brazil come up soon.

  2. Great post…though the country is “Colombia” not “Columbia” ;)

  3. As a Brazilian, I can tell you the reasons why there is not much Brazilian drivers in IndyCar (and in other series).

    First and most important, Brazilian racing is deceiving. the entity that manages motorsport in Brazil, CBA (Brazilian Motorsport COnfederation, in English), does almost nothing for the sport. For example, there isn’t a strong monocoque series in Brazil. F1 driver Felipe Massa and his father, Titonio, with the support of FIAT and Shell, opened a new base-series, called Formula Futuro. It didn’t last two years. The F3 Sudamericana, the only CBA-chancelled monocoque series, has less cars than Indy Lights. With less places to go, (the few) drivers go from kart to stock cars or endurance series, if they don’t have the necessary money to go abroad. The Autodromo Nelson Piquet (that one of the CART races at Rio) is demolished

    Second, there is a crisis worldwide that affects racing in a general way. You can see a state-of-the-art series like F1 with a grid full of pay-drivers. Motorsport is not the priority of an investor nowadays. Brazilian economy isn’t as bad, but it was better.

    But the item above is a factor that can make more Brazilian drivers look to America. They figured out that racing in US is way less expensive than Europe, which makes lots of drivers reconsider their career. The greatest example is Luiz Razia, a driver whose resumée is worthy of a ride on IndyCar, but he is driving on Lights – and loving it. It’s easy for other drivers to join him.

    Well, sorry for the long text. Feel free to discuss.

  4. Hi. George, great post but is Colombia instead of Columbia or Columbians (Colombians). 😉😉😉

  5. I was relieved to read the poll and see that most people understand the Brazilian interest and influence on INDYCAR racing and not to hear the all too typical “we need more American drivers in the series” criticism. INDYCAR is and always will be an American based series racing primarily in North America but it also needs to attract the best drivers in the world to maintain it’s worthy credibility no matter which country they come from.

  6. All the feedback I have from contacts in Brazil suggest that the widespread notion among fans here that Indycar is hugely popular there isn’t really backed up by the facts. I’ve been told that HCN isn’t particularly well-known in his home country, for instance. Neither TK nor Rubens were able to generate Brazilian-based funding for full-time Indycar seasons in recent years. The reasons are not only that funds are limited, but that’s also the case for the reach of TVBand versus Globo, so the ROI on sponsorship simply is not there for Brazilian firms. The attendance of ~45,000 for the races in Sao Paulo appears to be impressive when compared to some US events…until one realizes that Sao Paulo is the largest metro in the hemisphere with almost 20 million residents. A crowd of 35,000 at Iowa, in a metro of about 700,000, is actually far more impressive! Indycar remains less expensive than EU-based options for any driver, but when Americans are having great difficulty raising funds for full-time rides in Indycar, it seems logical that Brazilian drivers are going to find that road even more challenging.

  7. Well, a complete half-generation of Brazilian drivers have returned to their home country instead of staying in IndyCar.

    Bia has been pretty good on the ovals in IndyLights but after she broke her hand early on in her rookie season in IndyCar, she didn’t return quite the same as before and it seems team owners kind of lost faith in her. That’s really sad. This young lady deserves a proper ride in this year’s Indy 500. Another benefit would be that she knows the current car well.

    Raphael Matos tried to chase the Dragon, having been the driver that ran the most races for that team. But it just wasn’t a quality team. With no vacancies after the team folded for the 1st time, he returned home.

    Vitor Meira used to be for the IRL what Oriol Servia was to ChampCar. When there was no vacancy for him to fill in the unified series anymore, he got himself a paying gig at home whereas Oriol still has to deal with part-time entries.

    As far as the Colombians are concerned, both Munoz and Montoya have (long) since proven that they have got what it takes to drive IndyCars successfully. But I must say that Carlos Huertas has really impressed me with his Top 10 result in Long Beach. He makes it seem like the 2nd Coyne car is a good ride again this year.

  8. Brazilians aren’t only struggling to find IndyCar rides, look across the pond in Formula One; several years ago, one might say that you couldn’t swing a dead cat (as if someone would swing a dead cat, but I digress) without hitting a Brazilian. It was not uncommon to see at least 3 F1 drivers from Brazil each year, and plenty more in series like GP2, World Series by Renault, British F3, etc. In 2014, Felipe Massa, at the age of 32, is the only Brazilian in F1. Felipe Nasr and Andre Negrao are the only ones in GP2. Former Indy Lights race winner Victor Carbone is in GP3 this year, fellow FIL veteran Felipe Guimaraes is the lone Brazilian in European F3, and Pietro Fantin is the only one in the Renault World Series. Not many.

    On the other hand, look at how many Paulistas are big factors in sports car racing: di Grassi, Farfus, Fittipaldi, Junqueira, Matos, Senna; all capable of winning in their class. Most of these guys would be in single-seaters if the funding allowed. A rather sad development; I can’t think of a more passionate crowd in all of sports than a Brazilian crowd when one of their own takes the lead.

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