It is late afternoon and Emerson Fittipaldi has just climbed out of the pool at his Miami Beach home. Biscayne Bay is 17 steps away, and the cheapest houses in this enclave go for $1.2 million. Fittipaldi, twice the world driving champion and in 1972 the youngest man to win that title, does not own one of the cheapest. He flops down on a deck chair, wet and tanned and rich. His wife, Therese, and the children, Juliana, 13, Jayson, 11, Tatiana, 6, and Joana, 10 months, will be back soon. Perfect. Yes, it is all that, but it is not what Fittipaldi prefers.
"I always dream in my life to live by the sea," Fittipaldi says. "It's nice, yes? Feels good. But really there is no other feeling in the world like driving fast the racing car. When I leave the pits, it's like I pull the plug to disconnect from the world. I have only myself. That's good. The best."
Ah, yes, driving fast the racing car. With those two Formula One titles (1972 and '74), two seasons of retirement (1982-83) and near bankruptcy behind him, Fittipaldi, 40, is in the fourth year of a comeback and again driving at the front of the pack. Only now, instead of showing his mastery of Formula One venues, he's succeeding on the Indy Car circuit. And while there is a bit of the Grand Old Man aspect to this latest ride—"It's just a pleasure and a privilege to drive against him," says current Indy Car champion Bobby Rahal—Fittipaldi isn't just cruising around on some sort of valedictory tour. Witness: Despite experiencing mechanical problems that put him on the sidelines during eight of 14 races, Fittipaldi still scored two wins and never finished worse than seventh in the remaining races.
And is he enjoying himself? "Knowing you are driving on the limit is a great feeling. Come, you'll see." And with that, he runs—of course—toward his new Chris-Craft boat ($73,665)—fires it up and starts away from the dock. Backward. And fast. The prop reverses, and the boat shoots out onto the bay. Fellow boaters wave—and keep their distance. Fittipaldi returns a thumbs up.
"Hey, Emmo, are we going fast yet?"
"Not yet," he says with a laugh. In neat letters across the boat's stern is its name, Faster. After a few miles of red-line running, Fittipaldi whips the boat into a sandy cove and cuts the engines, jumps up on the transom and dives in. If he can't be having fun right now driving fast the racing car, this is one helluva substitute.
Out on the track Fittipaldi is maintaining a pace that convinces many Indy Car observers he will someday become the second man in history to add the Indy Car title to his world championships. That is one of the most formidable doubles in sport, as attested by the fact that only Mario Andretti has accomplished it. The problem is that while the two types of racing appear to bear a close resemblance, they are, as Andretti puts it, "only distant cousins."
Nowhere is the difference more apparent than on the oval tracks on which six of the 15 races in the CART schedule are contested, including, of course, Indy itself. Road racing is tolerant of a driver hanging a tire off the road to cut a corner, or riding up on a curb, or even occasionally missing a shift. Not so the ovals, where unforgiving cement walls mark the boundaries of the track, and speed differentials are figured in hundredths of a second. "You can learn from your mistakes on ovals," says Fittipaldi, "but it is good not to make too many."
Fittipaldi learned quickly and well, his first victory coming on July 28, 1985, at Michigan International Raceway, the CART circuit's fastest oval. "If I could choose one driver for all kinds of racing," says team owner U.E. (Pat) Patrick, "I'd choose Emerson."
All this is making Fittipaldi a hero to a new generation of fans who have only a vague recollection of his past but admiration for his present and great expectations for his future. But does Fittipaldi believe he has proved himself on the major ovals? "No," he says. "It takes more than one win."