AVONDALE, Arizona – Considering his grandfather’s track record, it should come as no surprise that Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Pietro Fittipaldi received some advice from his proud racing namesake before three days of testing at ISM Raceway.
Not many drivers have a legend for a grandfather like Emerson Fittipaldi – a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, two-time Formula 1 champion and 1989 Indy car titlist. Grandpa told grandson in a call before last week’s Phoenix open test about some bumps he remembered on the 1.022-mile oval.
Keep in mind, “Emmo” retired from racing in 1996, the year Pietro was born. The 21-year-old youngster discovered the track surface had changed.
“I think those bumps smoothed out in the last 20 years,” a smiling Pietro said during a break in Saturday testing. “I don’t think they’re there anymore.”
But the Brazilian-American from Miami realizes his jump to this series will have its share of bumps in the road. He’s found some of his grandfather’s other input quite helpful and looks forward to continued consultation.
“Some of the emphasis he told me to focus on, like set up the car more for (Turns) 1 and 2 and not so much (Turns) 3 and 4, it’s still playing a role,” Pietro said. “He knows that when he gives advice, everything has changed a lot. He just told me, ‘This might not be right, but if you feel it, this is how it was when I was doing it.’”
It’s early yet, but the young Fittipaldi appears to have settled in comfortably. He ranked 15th out of the 23 drivers at the open test, completing 287 laps in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with a best lap of 187.217 mph.
He’ll be a teammate of four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais for seven races, starting with the Phoenix Grand Prix when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to ISM Raceway on April 6-7 and including the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May. The significance of this year’s Indy 500 isn’t lost on Pietro, who is well aware it’s the 25th anniversary of his grandfather’s second Brickyard triumph.
But that’s in May. Until then, Pietro is like a sponge, soaking up everything. And he doesn’t hide his joy in doing so.
“It’s great to have Sebastien as my teammate. I used to watch him race. It’s pretty cool,” he said. “He tries to guide me. He’s a great teammate.”
Just then, a race car zooms out of a pit box not far from his stall. Fittipaldi whirls around to see who is making the distinct noise.
“I enjoy this obviously,” he said, smiling. “I’m pretty happy.”
Of course, racing is in his blood. He’s a Fittipaldi. And that blood is pumping.
“For sure, always,” he said. “I’m having fun but it’s also work because we’re working to be competitive. All the cars are here. Every time I’m driving a race car, I’m enjoying it.”
His path to realizing a life-long dream of driving an Indy car took him to Europe, where he won six races to capture last year’s World Series Formula V8 3.5 championship. He often ran into racing people who worked with or knew his grandfather, and they would share stories about Emerson. Pietro won three other series titles before that since 2011.
Racing is populated with signature names synonymous with the sport. If Fittipaldi is well prepared for anything, it’s being asked about living up to his family name.
“A lot of people ask me that,” he said. “To me, it’s a lot more of a privilege and honor to carry the name than anything negative. I love racing. I’m doing it because I love it. There isn’t anyone else than can put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I’m here, I want to win races. That’s what I want to do. Having the name and a family that supports me, a family that understands racing, that’s a big help.”
Pietro's cousin is Christian Fittipaldi, the former Indy car driver and current sports car standout that he considers an uncle. He also knows his uncle, INDYCAR race steward and retired Indy car driver Max Paris, won’t show him any favoritism.
“Max said, ‘I love you a lot, but keep it clean on the track,’” Fittipaldi said.
His No. 19 Honda will also give exposure to long-time personal sponsors Claro, Embratel, Moura and Airbit at not just the Indy 500 but also the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Indy 600, Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Grand Prix of Portland and Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo, a 19-year-old Canadian, will drive the car in the other 10 series races.
Pietro welcomes the challenge of having seven races to prove himself.
“I know I belong,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m not anxious. You’ve got to take things step by step, especially on the oval. It’s a lot less forgiving than the road courses. You make a mistake here, you’re going to feel it. That’s why I’ve got to take it step by step, one lap at a time, and just get up to speed.”
Dale Coyne sees the ride as another opportunity to groom two young talents. Last year, he had Sunoco Rookie of the Year Ed Jones, who was hired by Chip Ganassi Racing in the offseason.
Coyne, 63, was amused when asked if having another Fittipaldi involved in racing made him feel old.
“Emerson also has a son who I think is just 10 years old,” Coyne said. “I tell Pietro that 10-year-old kid is his uncle.
“Pietro has got it. He’ll surprise some people.”
He’s already hooked on old YouTube videos of the Indianapolis 500. It’s how he became aware of his grandfather’s legacy.
“Those are pretty cool. Those are the best,” Fittipaldi said. “Maybe I’ll watch a couple more to study for the Indy 500.”