The young Guerrero won the Colombian national carting championship when he was 14 and again the next year, and naturally wanted to become a professional race driver. But Roberto Sr., whose formal schooling had ended when he was seven, insisted that his son continue his education. So Roberto Jr. went off to the U.S. to learn English, and spent five months living in New York City with a family friend, taking the subway to New York University for English classes. It wasn't racing, but it was part of his plan. Next step: persuade his father to let him go to England to study automotive engineering. England is where race drivers arc made. Any hot-blooded South American boy with visions of Juan Fangio knows that.
It was a formidable assignment. In 1976, Guerrero found himself studying engineering in a foreign language at North Worcestershire College, in Britain, near Birmingham. "I'd go back to my room and cry," he says. "I didn't understand half of it. My notes were just blanks everywhere." He was also working in a garage to earn money to attend—without his father's knowledge—the Jim Russell British School of Motor Racing, where another South American driving prodigy, Emerson Fittipaldi, first put on display the talent that earned him two world driving titles.
Guerrero was both the slowest and the fastest student at the driving school. Taking the course piecemeal, as he could afford it, he needed six months to complete what others did in three days; but he was so fast on the track that he earned a start in one of the school's races—which he won, along with four out of five other races. North Worcestershire College saw less and less of him.
By now, Guerrero had informed his father of his extracurricular activities, and Guerrero p�re was so excited he forgot to be angry about his son's desertion from engineering school; in fact, Roberto Sr. found an Italian tile company to finance his son's racing. That was the pattern of the first six years of Guerrero's career: Dad dug up sponsors while Roberto clawed up the ladder of racing, his every move followed by Colombian media hungry for a motor sports hero to rival Brazil's Fittipaldi and the same country's three-time world champion, Nelson Piquet.
Backed by $400,000 a year from Cafe de Colombia, the government-supported coffee concern, Guerrero drove for two years in Formula One cars, with the Ensign and Theodore teams. But in that league $400,000 just buys a good seat from which to watch the winning car cross the finish line; it isn't enough to make your own car competitive. Then, in 1983, Teo Fabi, a driver for another back-marker F/1 team, defected to Indy Cars and won four races and was named Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500. Suddenly also-ran F/1 drivers looked very good to American team owners. One of them, Dan Cotter, offered Guerrero a ride. Roberto, who had recently married Katie Boster, a California girl, was on the next plane to the States. In his first year driving in the U.S., 1984, he was both Indy 500 and CART Rookie of the Year.
The story of Roberto and Katie's romance should be stolen by the writer of the next racing movie. They met at a party on a yacht, from which they were watching the 1981 Grand Prix of Monaco. Katie was a free-spirited American on a European fling, Roberto was a serious young man on a mission. She spotted Guerrero across the deck and told her girlfriend, right then and there, that she was going to marry him. "It sounds so weird," she says now. "And poor Roberto, he was so shy. I wasn't. I got someone to introduce us, and we sneaked away on mopeds and rode all over Monaco that night."
That was seven years ago this month, when Guerrero was 22. He hadn't planned to get married until he was about 30. Instead, with six months to go before that deadline, he has acquired not only Katie, but Marco, 2, and now Evan Michael, born on April 21. They live in a new house built on a hill in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. And all the new commitments and responsibilities don't appear to have compromised Guerrero's original mission, because today he is one of the best drivers in the world. "I remember the first year I got paid to drive, I couldn't believe it," he says. "To me it seemed crazy to get paid to do something I wanted to do so badly. Now, to be able to make a living like this in motor racing, to have my family, I feel like the luckiest guy alive. Sometimes it kind of frightens me to think I might wake up from this dream."
You would have to look long and hard to find anyone who doesn't like Guerrero. For a race driver, he's uniquely modest, sensitive and polite. Says Katie, "We've been together almost 24 hours a day for the last six years, and I've never seen him do anything mean or unkind to anybody. He really is as nice as everybody thinks he is when they first talk to him."
However, if those same people listened to him over the two-way radio during a race, they might get another impression. Says Katie, "Once, a team manager said to me, 'You shouldn't let this guy talk like this. You should hear him!' I couldn't imagine what he meant, so they played this tape for me. I swear to God, he's a maniac. He was saying bleeping this, bleeping that, 500 times a sentence. It was unbelievable. He hates everybody out there when he's driving. Then he pulls in, gets out of the car, and he's Mr. Mild-Mannered again."
"I never noticed it," says Guerrero nonchalantly. "I always thought I was the same guy when I was driving, until I listened to the tape myself. I couldn't believe it was me. Obviously there's something funny there."