Note: National Hispanic American Heritage Month takes place from Sept. 15-Oct. 15. This feature story is part of the salute to the rich legacy of Hispanic and Latino drivers in the INDYCAR SERIES.
Legendary Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi, the winner of two Formula One World Championships, an INDYCAR SERIES title and a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories, has advice for fathers with young children learning to drive race cars: Get the kid a coach.
“It’s best when there’s a coach between (the child) and the dad,” Fittipaldi said, laughing. “When dad coaches, that’s a problem.”
Fittipaldi called from his home in northern Italy, where his family has primarily lived the past three years as his youngest son, Emerson Jr., raced European karts and most recently Formula 4 cars in Denmark.
“He has a coach; I’m like the advisor,” Fittipaldi said. “I go in the corners and watch how he’s doing and how others are doing. It’s best that way.”
It must be working. The younger Fittipaldi, who is 14 and known mostly as “Emmo,” recently ended the F4 Danish Championship second in points for FSP Racing with three wins, a pole and four fastest race laps in 18 starts. That category was chosen because it was the only one where a driver his age could compete in an F4 car. Once he turns 15 in early March, he can compete in F4 in several European countries.
The Fittipaldis moved to Italy – from Miami – to be immersed in the hub of the best European karting teams. Emmo was the youngest member of the Sauber Academy, and it was not entirely a nod to one of the most recognized names in global motorsports.
“He’s good,” Fittipaldi said, “but learning. He’s very small but getting stronger. He’s very strong mentally.”
As for Fittipaldi, he professes to be in fine physical shape at age 74 – he turns 75 in December -- although he battled the COVID-19 virus during the spring of 2020. It seems difficult to believe the 51st anniversary of his first F1 victory – at Watkins Glen – was Oct. 4 of this year.
Fittipaldi did not attend an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race this season, but he watched many of the races live with his son glued to the action. He particularly enjoyed not only the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, a race he won in 1989 and 1993, but also the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“It was incredible, for sure,” he said of Helio Castroneves’ record-tying fourth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was talking to Zak (Brown, head of McLaren), and I said what INDYCAR is doing is fantastic and much more exciting to watch than any other form of racing. It’s better than F1.
“Sometimes the races are too late for us to watch, but my son goes crazy watching – he loves it. At 14 years old, he’s going crazy about it.”
Fittipaldi said he and his son were gutted for Pato O’Ward when the Arrow McLaren SP driver’s car was hit on the opening lap of the Long Beach race and effectively knocked out of championship contention. O’Ward drives for Brown, with whom Fittipaldi speaks regularly.
As Brown’s guest, Fittipaldi and his family attended last month’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where Fittipaldi clinched his first F1 title with a race win in 1972. Fittipaldi has called that drive in a backup Lotus 72D “the race of my life” due to the pressure he was under at age 25. The primary car had been badly damaged days earlier in the transporter’s highway crash, and then on race morning the crew had to scramble to fix a leaking fuel tank.
Largely because of travel restrictions associated with the pandemic, Fittipaldi has not visited IMS since Roger Penske took ownership and began a series of facility improvements. However, he visited with Penske during the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July in England, and Penske shared details.
“I’ve seen photographs, too, of course,” Fittipaldi said. “It surely must be better since ‘The Captain’ took over.”
Like Penske, Fittipaldi’s impact on the sport cannot be understated, particularly as the contributions of Hispanics and Latinos in America is celebrated through National Hispanic American Heritage Month.
Fittipaldi was the first of six Brazilian drivers to win an F1 race and the first of three to win a World Championship. Fittipaldi also led the Brazilian revolution in the INDYCAR SERIES, the first of four drivers to win a season championship – Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan and Cristiano da Matta are the others -- and the first of 12 to win a series race. Four Brazilians have won the “500” – Fittipaldi, Castroneves, de Ferran and Kanaan. Again, Fittipaldi was the first from his country to accomplish that.
Fittipaldi finished his F1 career (1970-80) with 14 race wins and six poles, then came to INDYCAR in 1984 and won 22 races and 17 poles over 13 seasons.