The Boys From…Colombia?
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.