Cart Driver Adrian Fernandez is a superstar in his native Mexico, even rivaling the Rolling Stones in popularity. When Fernandez went with his two sisters and some members of his race team to the Stones' Mexico City gig in February, people recognized him as he walked to his seat after the concert had started and chanted his name, "A-dri-an, A-dri-an," while the band played.
Elsewhere Fernandez is known mostly as a driver who has had his celebratory moments stolen by gruesome chance. Two years ago his first win on the CART circuit was marred by two fatalities. Then two months ago, at Michigan Speedway, Fernandez wrecked in Turn 4, and a tire and part of his suspension flew over a 14�-foot-high safety fence into the stands, killing three people and injuring six. The aftermath of that horrific incident put a damper on his third career victory two weeks later at the Miller Light 200 at Mid- Ohio. On average, two or three cars crash every race, but the CART series hadn't had a spectator fatality in more than a decade. "As drivers, we hate to see things like that," says Fernandez. "We are human. We feel pain like everyone else."
Fernandez sent condolence letters to the families of the dead, and the sister of one of the victims, Sheryl Laster, even wrote back. "It was such a nice letter, it made me cry, to be honest," he says. "She told me about the type of person her sister was and that we should keep in contact. It made me feel very nice, but it's very private."
Except for that tragedy this has been Fernandez's best season. During his previous five years on the CART circuit, he had six top five finishes and one win, and his highest finish in the point standings was 12th. This year alone Fernandez has seven top fives and two victories—at the Budweiser 500 in Motegi, Japan, and at Mid-Ohio—and he is third in points after finishing 15th at Sunday's Molson Indy in Vancouver.
Fernandez's first career win was at the 1996 Molson Indy in Toronto. However, the race had been red-flagged two laps before the finish because of a messy, four-car crash. Only after the podium ceremony and postrace press conference was Fernandez told that rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff had been killed in the accident and that flying wreckage had also killed a race official. "That was a big shock," says Fernandez. "My win wasn't important anymore. For me, that wasn't my first win." It took 19 months and 24 races for Fernandez to find victory lane again, at Motegi last March. Fernandez, the son of a Mexico City auto-parts store owner, raced on the Mexican road circuits as a teenager and then in a few of Europe's developmental open-wheel racing series. His win in Japan was the culmination of a 15-year journey to the pinnacle of North American racing. Now he hopes for happier days like that one.
"The team has done very well, but it's our first year together and we're still learning," he says. "Next year we will work to win the championship, and I think we can do it." If he does, the people of Mexico will dance in the streets, and he will be able to celebrate too.