From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, May 28, 1990
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, flat 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.
He most likely figures the '90 race is his to win too. In October, Fittipaldi joined Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan on the team owned by Roger Penske. All told, the three Penske drivers have five 500 victories. What's more, Fittipaldi is sitting on the pole for this year's race, having qualified at 225.301 mph.
Fittipaldi grew up in São 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. 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 balance the brave and the afraid."
The soft cadences and vivid imagery of Fittipaldi's speech are captivating, even though English is just one of the five languages he speaks. The others are Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. "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. His 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.
Emerson and Teresa met in São Paulo in '82, when she was ending a long relationship and he was separating from his first wife and their three children. "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."
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. Six months later Emerson had 15 employees turning out steering wheels in his parents' garage. That was the genesis of Fittipaldi Motoring Accessories, today a thriving company 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, which Emerson drove to championships. The money he earned from the sale of the racing vehicles financed Emerson's expedition to race in Europe in '69.