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To many of the 30 million people tuned to the 1989 Indianapolis 500, Emerson Fittipaldi was just another race driver with a foreign name. But that perception suddenly changed on the next to last lap, when he became the embodiment of the daring, dashing driver who gives no quarter and expects none in return. As Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. dived into the third turn, fiat-out at 200 mph, side by side on a final sprint to the checkered flag, their wheels touched. Fittipaldi's car wiggled but somehow stayed on course to victory. Unser spun and smacked the wall.
Either could have prevented the incident by lifting off the throttle and yielding the line, but what driver is going to back off when he is 60 seconds from winning the most famous race in the world? Certainly not Fittipaldi, a two-time Formula One world champion who drew on experience accumulated over more than two decades of racing and coolly used traffic to take the advantageous inside line from Unser. He figured the race was his to win.
Seven days later another Fittipaldi was on display. This time he was leading the Miller 200 on the one-mile oval at Wisconsin State Fair Park. As he was lapping a slower car, the driver cut him off.
"Then I made a big mistake," Fittipaldi says. "I was so upset with him, I raised my fist. But when I did that, it upset the balance of my car because I was in his draft. I lost control. I spun and hit the wall. I had to go into the pits [to check for damage and change tires]. I recovered my position and was nearly leading the race again, then the rear suspension collapsed because I had touched the wall."
Fittipaldi went on to win the next three races—in Detroit, Portland, Ore., and Cleveland—to tie Rick Mears and Bobby Rahal for the Championship Auto Racing Teams record for consecutive victories. He won his fifth race of the 15-race CART season on Sept. 24 in Nazareth, Pa. By beating Mears to the finish there, Fittipaldi assured himself of the 1989 Indy Car championship.
This year Fittipaldi has joined Mears and Danny Sullivan on the team owned by Roger Penske. All told, the three Penske drivers have five Indianapolis 500 victories ( Mears won in 1979, '84 and '88; Sullivan in '85). What's more, Fittipaldi is sitting on the pole for Sunday's race, having qualified at 225.301 mph, with Mears right next to him at 224.215 mph and Sullivan in ninth at 220.310 mph, despite having to make a weather-delayed qualifying run in very windy conditions last Saturday. However, on the inside of the third row, in the No. 7 position, will be Unser at 220.920 mph. Little Al, who qualified on the same day as Sullivan, may have the fastest car at the Speedway—in practice he had a 228.502 lap, the best ever turned at the Brickyard.
The sixth-fastest qualifying time (222.025 mph) went to Mario Andretti, the only driver besides Fittipaldi to have won the Formula One world championship (Fittipaldi's titles came in 1972 and '74, Andretti's in 78), the Indy 500 (Andretti won in '69) and the Indy Car title (Andretti has won the championship four times). That international hat trick might demand drivers with international backgrounds. Andretti, 50, lived in Italy until age 15, when he was brought to Nazareth, Pa. There he cut his racing teeth on jalopies, dreaming of the day he would be going back to Europe to compete on the Grand Prix circuit.
Fittipaldi grew up in S�o Paulo, Brazil. His father was a motor sports journalist and broadcaster. "My father's of Italian background," says the 43-year-old Fittipaldi. "I have Italian blood, hot blood. My mother is Russian, the other way. I can be, too. I can be very cold when I need to be—under pressure, for example. That's a big advantage. But still, many things scare me—heights, roller coasters, sharks—anything you don't have control over. But to be a good racing driver you have to be brave, and you have to be afraid. You have to balance the brave and the afraid."
The soft cadences and vivid imagery of Fittipaldi's speech are captivating, even though English ranks third among the five languages he speaks, both in preference and fluency. Except when it comes to cursing, for which Fittipaldi says English has no equal. Though he rates his Italian no higher than fourth in proficiency (his other languages are Portuguese, Spanish and French), it is his favorite. "I love to speak Italian," he says. "So romantic. My heart is Italian. Italians are very artistic, the cars, everything. When I go to Italy, I feel home."
No matter the language, Fittipaldi's favorite word is love, and it usually follows I. Dark eyes flash expressively as he speaks of his enthusiasms, and his face frequently composes itself around a grin. His graying hair is balding on top, and it flows long in the back. His wife, Teresa, likes to tie it in a ponytail when they're around the house.