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Designs ON Indy
Sam Moses
May 28, 1990
Defending champion Emerson Fittipaldi will have a lot more going for him at the 500 than his give-no-quarter driving style
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May 28, 1990

Designs On Indy

Defending champion Emerson Fittipaldi will have a lot more going for him at the 500 than his give-no-quarter driving style

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He and Teresa met in S�o Paulo in 1982, when she was ending a long relationship and he was separated from his first wife and their three children. They noticed each other at a health club, where both of them had been working out twice a day to forget their troubles. "Emerson was a big national hero in Brazil, and I'd seen him on television," says Teresa. "Emerson can talk with his eyes. He has a very deep look, very strong look, very powerful. You never see Emerson look someplace else when he talks to you; he always looks straight into your eyes."

Almost inevitably those unwavering eyes seek the right line, whether it be through a corner at a racetrack or in the design of a piece of racing equipment. Fittipaldi's accomplishments as a designer have nearly kept pace with his driving feats. While racing motorcycles and go-karts in Brazil at 17, he came up with a leather-wrapped aluminum steering wheel for his mother's sedan. So many people wanted the wheel that six months later Emerson had 15 employees turning out steering wheels in his parents' garage. That was the genesis of Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories, which today is a thriving company, now based in Miami.

When he was 19, Fittipaldi and his older brother, Wilson, codesigned and manufactured a go-kart. Next they built and sold Formula Vee cars. Emerson proved the worth of their designs by driving the cars to championships. The money he earned from the sale of the racing vehicles financed Emerson's expedition to race in Europe in 1969.

Three years later, while driving for Team Lotus, he became the youngest driver ever to win the Formula One world title. He won again in 1974, after switching to Team McLaren. By 1976, when he and Wilson formed their own Formula One team, Emerson was reported to be the world's highest-paid athlete, with an annual income of $1.7 million. Six years later, he would retire to Brazil, virtually broke.

The Fittipaldi race team never jelled. Emerson was tied for 16th in Formula One points in 1976, and for the next three years he was 12th, ninth and 21st, respectively. In 1980, Fittipaldi gave up driving to concentrate on managing the team. He decided to build his own car rather than buy chassis from others.

The result, says Fittipaldi, "was a piece of art. Every part of the car was fantastic. I spent more than half a million dollars. Big mistake. When we put it on the track for the first time, I drove it. The chassis felt like a banana. Unbelievable. Undrivable. Its handling was impossible. Its looks were beautiful, but it was a disaster. That was the car that killed my team.

"So much money, so much effort, so much prestige—everything gone," he continues. "It wrecked my marriage, too. It was tough on the ego, yes, but the hardest part was family problems, because I had my brother involved. In six years of my life with that team, I lived 12."

The legacy Fittipaldi left behind in Formula One racing went beyond his achievements as a driver and his failures as an owner. He revolutionized driving technique by redesigning the steering wheel. His version had finger grips at the nine o'clock and three o'clock positions, instead of at the traditional 10 and two o'clock spots. Not only did Fittipaldi's innovation give the driver better leverage on the wheel and better sensitivity to the road, but it also reduced fatigue by moving his shoulders farther back into the seat. Fittipaldi's wheel is still the best-selling steering wheel for open-wheeled race cars in the world.

His latest creation is a seat for the Penske-Chevy, which he will drive at Indy. It's a carbon-fiber cocoon, cradling and hugging the driver from his knees to his shoulders. The object of the seat is similar to that of the Fittipaldi steering wheel: to make the driver more a part of the car. "You feel the car with your whole body," he says.

Behind the wheel of his Mercedes 560SEL, sprung low over the latest Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories mag-type wheels, Fittipaldi pulls up to the big wooden gate protecting his home on Miami's Biscayne Bay. A cellular phone is pressed to his ear. He is trying to wind up another busy day at the office located on the 25th floor of, a waterfront condominium. Fittipaldi continues to have business interests back in Brazil, including 27 Hugo Boss men's clothing franchises, a Mercedes dealership and a 200,000-tree orange grove.

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