In Brazil, telemarketing is apparently so rampant that calls from unfamiliar numbers aren’t answered to limit their frequency.
So, imagine Vitor Meira’s recent dilemma when a sequence of numbers on his phone included a 3 followed by a 1 and a 7. The former NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver now back in his home country perked up and quickly answered.
“I remember even before I got to INDYCAR that if a number showed 317, you picked it up,” Meira said, laughing. “Anything 317, you picked it up!”
For those unaware, 317 is the area code that includes Indianapolis, where INDYCAR and most of its teams are based. In this case, the call was from a writer wanting to catch up with Meira, who has been out of the sport’s eye for more than a decade.
Meira spent 10 years competing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, driving for Team Menard, Rahal Letterman Racing, Panther Racing and AJ Foyt Racing. He is best known for twice finishing second in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, first to Dan Wheldon in 2005 and then Scott Dixon in 2008.
Meira’s series accomplishments need revisiting because it has been 11 years since he last drove in a race and nearly a decade since he has attended one. His last visit to the sport was in 2014 when he accompanied his country’s governor to the “500” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as they worked to bring a series street race to Brasilia, Meira’s hometown.
Since then, Meira, now 45, has largely been focused on shepherding two Brasilia-based companies, a chain of self-storage facilities he started after he stopped driving and the advertising agency his late father created as the family business. Meira said the agency’s work is nearly as fast paced as motorsports as it is focused on governmental affairs, and Brazil’s elections took place Sunday, Oct. 2.
Meira said his free time is devoted to family. He and his wife, Adriana, who were married in Las Vegas’ Little White Chapel in 2004, have an 11-year-old daughter who has meant more to him than he ever expected. He often thinks back to a conversation he had with his father before she was born.
“We were on an elevator,” Meira said of the chat with his father. “I didn’t have kids at the time, and he asked me if I ever had them would I do everything for them that he did for me. You have to remember that he did so many things for my career – getting sponsors, working hard and all that, and it was incredible. But without knowing what it’s like to have kids I told him no, and he got really pissed off, saying ‘What the hell?!’
“At the time, I didn’t understand what it was like to be a parent, but now, man, I would do anything to make this kid happy. Unfortunately, it’s too late to answer my father (differently).”
His father died in 2015.
Meira raced with one of the most unique and organic fan bases in NTT INDYCAR SERIES history. In 2005, while Meira drove for the team owned by Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, a fifth-grade girl from Fishers, Indiana, took a photograph of him and put it in a lanyard. During that year’s 500 Festival Parade, Liz Van Oosterburg held it up for Meira to see it as he rode past. He smiled and gave her a thumbs up. Her fandom went to another level.
The next year, Van Oosterburg created an orange T-shirt bearing the image of Meira in the lanyard. The shirt read: “I (Heart) Vitor.” Meira saw it during her visit to IMS and liked it so much he invited her to ride in the parade with him.
As Meira had moved to Panther Racing, Van Oosterburg made a new shirt of the team’s signature yellow, and team officials promoted the creation by distributing thousands of them to fans. Meira still contends it’s one of the coolest things that happened in his driving career, but that’s only part of the story. Van Oosterburg went on to study public relations in college, got a job in the series and is engaged to Kyle Kaiser, the driver who bumped two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso from the “500” field in 2019.
“That seems like a generation ago, but it’s funny how such a small moment (changed my life),” Van Oosterburg said. “He’s such a good guy.”
Said Meira: “I still have a photo of that shirt.”
Meira was the inaugural winner of INDYCAR’s Rising Star Award, given in honor of the late Tony Renna, a driver who was popular in his own right. Along with his racing skills, Meira always came across in an endearing way, and it could be argued that he was the most popular non-winning driver of his generation. Ten years, 131 starts, no wins. Only three drivers in history have had more INDYCAR SERIES starts without reaching victory lane.
However, Meira was always a win waiting to happen, and he politely deferred from a chance to win the second race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2002 in a car fielded by Team Menard. Late in the race, the driver making only his fourth series start found himself right behind race leaders Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr., who were side-by-side in a dramatic battle for the series championship in the season’s final race. Meira could have pressed the issue, but he was young – then 25 – and figured he would have other chances to win a race.
Besides, he thought, these are the championship contenders.
“Who am I?” Meira remembers thinking as he took third place, the first of his 15 career top-three finishes in the series. “I don’t want to mess this (finish) up.”
Meira had more INDYCAR near-misses, which is part of his lore. He came within a blink of winning three different races at Kansas Speedway. The first, in 2004, still stands as the third-closest 1-2 finish in series history, with Rahal Letterman teammate Buddy Rice edging him by .0051 of a second. In 2005, Meira finished third in a virtual three-wide finish with Tony Kanaan and Wheldon finishing just ahead of him. The next year he lost a similar battle with Hornish and Wheldon. Note that those opponents are all “500” winners and considered among the best oval-track drivers of the past two decades.
Meira can fondly reminisce about those moments without concern how victory eluded him. He had a terrific career after leaving the U.S., including a pair of seasons in Brazil’s stock car division and a championship in the country’s touring car series. He is satisfied.
“I didn’t win a race, but I have everything else – all the friends and things like what happened with the shirts,” he said. “Those are the moments that count. In fact, in some ways they count more.
“A lot of good things happened, and I had a very good career and got to do some incredible things. People need to know that a lot of good things can happen after the engines stop, and that’s certainly happened to me. That’s what is permanent. That is what I appreciate, and I accept them happily.
“If you can find something to carry on living a good life, as I have, you take that as a win.”