When Emerson Fittipaldi began racing in Formula One in 1970, the odds were one in seven that any given driver would not survive the season. But the Brazilian lived through 11 years on that circuit and 13 more in CART, winning two F/1 world championships (1972 and '74) and two Indianapolis 500s ('89 and '93).
Now, after suffering spinal-cord injuries in two crashes just 14 months apart—one in an Indy Car and one in an ultralight aircraft he was flying in early September—the 50-year-old Fittipaldi has decided it's time to adopt a more sedate lifestyle. He announced recently that he is giving up dangerous activities, including car racing.
That's good news, because few drivers have defied the odds as long as Fittipaldi. The increasingly monochromatic racing world needs a figure as colorful and charismatic as Emmo, as legions of fans know him, even if he is not behind the wheel but behind the wall, as an Indy Car team owner, which is his plan.
Fittipaldi's relaxed personality belied his intense driving style. He won at Indy in 1989 with an audacious last-lap dive inside race leader Al Unser Jr., bumping Unser's tires and sending him into the wall. Two weeks later at the Detroit Grand Prix he crashed in the first turn. He rejoined the race in last place, and won. Fittipaldi often compared driving exotic cars to "making love to a beautiful woman—when it is right, you are as one." Rarely if ever did he say a car was running great. Rather, he would say, "She is beautiful today."
After a crash at Michigan in July 1996 nearly left him a quadriplegic, he stubbornly refused to rule out a return to racing. He sat out the '97 CART season and was toying with the idea of running a limited schedule next year. But on Sept. 7 during a visit to his Brazilian orange groves, Fittipaldi crashed his ultralight plane in a swamp. Rescuers needed 11 hours to find the wreckage, and Fittipaldi required neurosurgery to rebuild a section of his lower spine. He will wear a torso brace for six months.
It's doubtful that he can quit his addiction to speed cold turkey, however. Fittipaldi likely will be seen zooming up and down Biscayne Bay, near his Miami home, in one of his cigarette boats. She'll be beautiful, of course.