For a driver who has not competed in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Pietro Fittipaldi sure knows his way around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His time there, however, has not been ideal.
Two weeks before the 2018 “500” in which he was scheduled to compete, Fittipaldi crashed hard while qualifying for a World Endurance Championship race at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. The DragonSpeed car had a mechanical failure, leading to a near direct impact with the outside barrier. Fittipaldi broke both legs, with compound fractures.
The day after surgery, doctors predicted he wouldn’t drive a race car for a year.
“I was gutted,” he said.
Fittipaldi’s Indianapolis connections – his grandfather, Emerson, twice won the “500” and the family tree includes 1995 runner-up Christian Fittipaldi and Max Papis – got him connected with noted Indianapolis orthopedic surgery specialist Dr. Terry Trammell, who brought him to the city. For nearly three months, Fittipaldi lived with his mother in a motorhome inside IMS as he pushed through daily rehabilitation sessions.
Trammell and the INDYCAR medical team helped design a carbon fiber brace that allowed Fittipaldi to drive quicker than expected. By the end of July, he was back in a race car.
“Not at 100 percent,” he said, “but I knew I had to get back to maximize my opportunities.”
That opportunity was with Dale Coyne, who had watched the young Brazilian-American qualify 10th for that season’s first oval race, at Phoenix International Raceway. Fittipaldi’s return came during the July 27-29 weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the first of five NTT INDYCAR SERIES races to end the season.
Fittipaldi clearly wasn’t himself in those events, but he nonetheless made a strong impression. He finished 11th at World Wide Technology Raceway, was ninth at Portland International Raceway and ran stronger at Sonoma Raceway than his 16th-place finish suggests.
He wasn’t fully back, but he was on his way.
“I had that feeling I needed to come back (and) really show people what I can do,” he said.
People noticed. For 2019, he landed a ride with Audi in Germany’s competitive DTM touring car series and last year joined the Haas F1 Team as a Formula One reserve driver. He made two F1 starts late in the season in place of new INDYCAR driver Romain Grosjean, who suffered burns to his hands in a first-lap crash in Bahrain.
Fittipaldi maintains his role with Gene Haas’ F1 organization, but he has signed with Coyne to compete in four oval races for the upcoming season. Later this month, the 24-year-old will reorient himself to INDYCAR with a test at Texas Motor Speedway, where he will drive the No. 51 Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware for the May 1-2 doubleheader. He also is scheduled to race in the “500” and at Gateway, coincidentally in an entry Grosjean will drive in INDYCAR’s road courses and street circuits.
Fittipaldi preferred a full-season opportunity, but this will do for now.
“I’m a guy that races anything that has four wheels,” said Fittipaldi, who has been receiving tutelage from 2013 “500” winner and fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan, INDYCAR’s 2004 champion. “Two wheels? Maybe not. For wheels? Without a doubt. Could be on ice, could be on dirt. I’ll race anything.”
Fittipaldi’s past bears that out. In 2011, he won a limited late model championship at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway in 2011 and then captured the season’s most important race, the Pepsi Fall Brawl, in 2012.
“It helped me in terms of understanding setup, how cross weight works on the car, how the tires are off camber – basically it got me into that oval-thinking mindset (that) I’ve always kept with me,” he said.
Fittipaldi couldn’t be more excited to return to INDYCAR, a series he would like to be in full time in 2022 if an opportunity presents itself. Most of all, he is ready to compete on the IMS oval, which he woke up to every morning all those summer days in 2018.
“To have the name ‘Fittipaldi’ represented on track, it’s a big privilege, a big honor,” he said. “I’m going to be there representing the whole family.
“Who knows, maybe win an Indy 500. That’s the goal. That’s the dream.”
The 17-race 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. The Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is May 30. Both races will air on NBC.