Vitor Meira: Underachiever Or Underrated?
I read a comment last week that took a very unnecessary cheap shot comparing Danica Patrick to Vitor Meira inferring that both were underachieving, mediocre talents. I think more than enough has been written and said about Ms. Patrick in the past week, but I felt the urge to defend Vitor Meira. While some seem to feel that he is an underachiever, I personally think that Vitor Meira is one of the most underrated drivers in the Izod IndyCar Series.
Vitor Meira first arrived on the IndyCar scene in 2002, driving for John Menard in the final four races of the season. In only his fourth race, he won the pole in the season finale at Texas and finished third. After missing the first three races of the 2003 season, the Brazilian rejoined Menard for his rookie appearance at the 2003 Indianapolis 500, where he started twenty-sixth and finished twelfth. He was scheduled to run the remainder of the season before he broke his wrist in a practice crash at Kentucky. He returned to run the final two races of the season.
The 2004 season began again with Vitor Meira on the sidelines, before he joined Rahal-Letterman Racing at Motegi. His seventh place start and sixth place finish in only his second Indianapolis 500 was overshadowed by the performance of Buddy Rice, who won the pole and the race. Although Meira missed the first two races of the season and had a disappointing run at Motegi, he displayed amazing consistency from Indy forward and finished eighth in points for 2004.
Despite starting his IndyCar career in 2002, it wasn’t until 2005 that Vitor Meira had a deal put together before the season started. For the first time in his career, he found himself on the starting grid at the season opener at Homestead. He and Buddy Rice returned to Rahal-Letterman as teammates, as they welcomed a third teammate – a rookie named Danica Patrick.
Rice struggled with injuries and inconsistency, while Danica Patrick garnered all the attention and headlines. In the meantime, Vitor Meira quietly put together a very solid season. Along with finishing second to Dan Wheldon at Indy, Meira had seven top finishes against only three DNF’s while headed toward a seventh place finish for the season. Meira had the highest point total among the three Rahal-Letterman drivers. His reward was to be the only RHR driver to lose their ride at season’s end, a result of losing the Menard’s sponsorship. Meira was replaced by Paul Dana who brought Ethanol sponsorship dollars to the table.
The 2006 season saw Meira join a Panther Racing team, which was in a steep decline. Tomas Scheckter had left the team after two disappointing seasons that saw the once proud team score only one win. Longtime sponsor Pennzoil was gone and the team was struggling. Amidst rumors that the team would fold, they answered the bell – carrying a revolving door of sponsors you never heard of. With little fanfare, Meira carried the struggling team on his back to finish fifth in the point standings. Meira showed the same consistency that was quickly becoming his trademark in racking up seven top-five finishes – including three second-place finishes, while incurring only two DNF’s.
Against all odds, Meira and Panther Racing returned for 2007 with full sponsorship from Delphi. The perseverance of Meira and the little team that could had seemingly paid off. Surprisingly, now with funding in place – the results fell off. Suddenly, inconsistency was plaguing the team. There were only three top-five finishes along with six DNF’s as the team limped along to a twelfth place finish in points.
Although even more financial stability arrived with new sponsor National Guard for the 2008 season, the results actually worsened. One of the few bright spots was a second-place finish at Indianapolis that was highlighted by a spectacular banzai pass for the lead on Scott Dixon late in the race headed into turn one. Dixon eventually retook the lead en route to the win, but it showcased Meira’s talent and bravado. The remainder of the season saw Meira work his way toward the front, only to see his work evaporate when his crew gave him dreadfully slow pit work.
When Dan Wheldon became available at the end of the 2008 season, the temptation to grab the former protégé was too great for Panther owner John Barnes to pass up. Vitor Meira was unceremoniously dumped by Panther in favor of Wheldon. The domino effect continued as Meira returned the favor by being hired by AJ Foyt Racing, who in turn dumped Darren Manning. For what it’s worth, Meira was somewhat vindicated when Wheldon failed to perform in the Panther car in 2009.
It seemed an unlikely paring with Meira and Foyt and the results were disastrous. A ninth place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg was the best result. That was followed by a forgettable fourteenth at Long Beach. Kansas found Foyt and Meira finishing in last place. Things brightened a little bit as Meira qualified mid-pack at Indy, starting fourteenth. He steadily worked his way up to sixth place before a slow pit stop put him back deep in the field. Then his crew set him on fire in the pits as his Dallara was completely engulfed in flames. Meira calmly closed his visor as the crew drenched him and his car, while putting out the ethanol flames. After the fire was out, the unfazed Meira rejoined the fight – still on the lead lap.
On lap 174, Raphael Matos attempted an impossible pass on Meira going into turn one. They touched wheels, sending Meira into a frightening 90-degree angle into the SAFER barrier. The car somehow turned backwards and then on its side as it took an unlikely backwards ride along the retaining wall. The crash broke two vertebrae in Meira’s back and he was out for the season. To be honest, if it weren’t for the SAFER barrier and the HANS device – I don’t think Vitor Meira would be alive today. Instead, after missing the remainder of the season, Meira will return to the cockpit of the ABC Supply Car next spring fully recovered.
Vitor Meira doesn’t have the best timing. In an era where it is almost imperative for a driver to bring sponsorship dollars to the table, all Meira brings is talent. Most of his career was with teams as they were hitting their bottom. The lone exception was his tenure at Rahal-Letterman Racing where he outperformed his teammates, but was shown the door when his sponsorship dried up through no fault of his own. Unlike some of his more vocal countrymen, Meira is quiet and reserved – which is a nice way of saying he keeps his mouth shut. Instead, he quietly goes about his business trying to milk the most that he can from underperforming equipment. He doesn’t complain about his lot in life, instead he seems to relish the role of underdog.
Meira has never won an IndyCar race, although he has finished second eight times. His results have come mostly in second-rate equipment. While someone took a cheap-shot against Meira in saying that he and Danica were both underachievers, I’ll combat that by saying that had Meira spent the last three seasons in an AGR car – I’d bet money that he would have won more than one race by now, and chances are it wouldn’t be a fuel-mileage race.
Meira’s unassuming demeanor makes some fans think he is pouting or brooding. I’ve heard some fans call him a whiner for calling out another driver following a crash. It’s funny how demeanor is perceived. When Helio Castroneves calls a driver out by name, he is called a fiery competitor. When the more reserved Meira does it, he is called a brooding whiner.
Before the accident at Indy last year, I predicted that Foyt and Meira would part ways before season’s end. I still maintain that for 2010. The driver always gets the blame and then the boot at Foyt’s team. As everyone knows, I’m a huge Foyt fan – but his team is laughable. The worst thing about Foyt’s team is that it is a career graveyard. It is where driver’s careers go to die. If Meira gets the heave-ho at Foyt, I’m not sure where goes from there.
It would be a shame if Vitor Meira is facing his last stop in the Izod IndyCar Series. He is way too talented and too nice of a guy to close out his career without a win. But racing is filled with stories of unfulfilled promise. In Vitor Meira’s case, his unfulfilled promise is a function of poor timing rather than a lack of talent.