Last December, at the Penske Racing Christmas party, the revelers were treated to a little spontaneous entertainment when the team's drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, donned dark sunglasses and belted out (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. It was an appropriate serenade, considering that Roger Penske, the legendary car owner, was stuck on 99 career wins and that his three-year victory drought was easily the longest of his 31-year career.
Now, six months after the Brazilians' impromptu turn as rock stars, it's hard to believe they ever had such failure to lament. De Ferran got Penske his 100th win at the Bosch Grand Prix in Nazareth, Pa., on May 27, and the pair went on to win two of the next three CART races as well. On the strength of those two victories, de Ferran crept within one point of Roberto Moreno in the driver standings, but Moreno extended his lead with a win on Sunday in the Grand Prix of Cleveland while de Ferran finished 14th. In racing up the standings, de Ferran has earned lofty praise from his boss. "He reminds me of Rick Mears with his intensity and understanding of the car," says Penske. "Yet he's not an overbearing driver who is telling the engineer how to set the car up. He just gives great feedback."
In fact, it was smarts that earned the brainy 32-year-old de Ferran his start in competitive racing. When he was 13, his main hobby was tooling around his S�o Paolo neighborhood in the go-kart he had been driving since he was five. "I was trying to get into one of the best high schools in S�o Paolo," de Ferran recalls. "You had to go for an admission test, and it wasn't easy. My dad said, 'Look, if you pass the test, we'll buy a new go-kart and go racing.' So I passed, he bought a new go-kart and we went racing."
For the next several years de Ferran tried to balance schoolwork and racing. His education included a three-month spell as an exchange student on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in the dead of winter. His racing accomplishments included the 1987 Brazilian Formula Ford championship at the age of 19. By his first year of college, when he had the opportunity to go to England to race Formula Three cars, he had to choose between his studies and full-time racing. "University wasn't something I didn't like," says de Ferran, who was studying to be an engineer. "The decision was tough, but I said I'd give [racing] a couple of years. That was 12 years ago."
He made his way to the CART circuit in 1995, winning rookie of the year honors for Hall Racing, and when Penske had a seat open up for the 2000 season, he gave it to de Ferran, largely because he was impressed with the driver's attention to detail. "He doesn't just fly in on a private plane, show up with his helmet and go racing," says Penske.
De Ferran is all business at the track, but away from it he has an engaging personality. Says Penske: "There's a fun, kidding side of Gil you don't see here."
So come December, don't be surprised if de Ferran is again the life of the company party. Chances are, however, he'll be singing a different tune.