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Harris: Gil de Ferran Is The King Of The Big Finish

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 19 2009
Gil de Ferran has slid out from behind the steering wheel and into the future. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

Gil de Ferran has slid out from behind the steering wheel and into the future. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

Gil de Ferran sure knows how to retire.

The Paris-born Brazilian did it again in the ALMS season-ending race two weeks ago,  co-driving an Acura ALMS car to victory in his swan song as a sports car driver.

That definitely evoked memories of his retirement from the IndyCar Series in 2003, when that year’s Indianapolis 500 winner wrapped up a special open-wheel driving career with a victory from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway.

Like de Ferran says, though, he wasn’t about to retire from life. For the next five years, the thinking man’s race driver stayed plenty busy, doing some TV work, then becoming the boss of the Honda Formula One team until the politics and intrigues of the globetrotting series sent him on to other endeavors.

Finally, there was an opportunity to start his own ALMS team and de Ferran couldn’t pass it up. He announced the formation of the team in January , 2008, and began competing at midseason.

“I like to find things to do that interest me,’’ says the man nicknamed “The Professor’’ during his open-wheel career.  “I always thought about being a team owner.  I drove for and learned from the best – Jackie Stewart, Jim Hall and Roger Penske. It was something I wanted to try to do sometime in my life.’’

When it came time to think about drivers for the new team, de Ferran said he thought long and hard about who would understand and deal with the situation and help the team develop quickly.

Finally, de Ferran decided he was the best choice, despite having gone nearly five years without being behind the wheel of a race car. He then hired Simon Pagenaud, a young Frenchman with unlimited potential, as his teammate.

“It was hard,’’ de Ferran said of his return to the cockpit. “You think you’re in pretty good shape until you have to get in a race car and withstand the G Forces and deal with everything that comes with driving in competition. But it was also very rewarding.’’

Gil de Ferran Motorsports quickly went from idea to reality and the team was almost immediately successful – and fast.

“What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Gil?’’ said longtime friend Dario Franchitti. “He’s always been really fast.’’

If you need proof of that, just think back to October 28, 2000 when de Ferran set a record for the fastest lap on as closed course with a speed of 241.426 mph during CART qualifying at California Speedway.

And he was still fast enough at 41 years old to challenge for the championship this season, winning eight poles and five races.

But enough is enough.

The next step for de Ferran is trying to expand his ALMS team to two cars and, if he can put the deal together in time, run at least one car in the 2010 IndyCar Series.

“We need to be a bigger team to do what we would like to do,’’ he said. “It’s setting the bar pretty high and I want to put all my energy into achieving it. I can’t do that if I’m still driving the car.’’

De Ferran says he has talked to some potential sponsors and drivers about his IndyCar plans, but no announcement is imminent.

“In this economic environment, this is a tough thing to get done,’’ he said. “Some days I think, `Great, we’re getting close.’ And, other times, I think, `I don’t know if we can do this.’ But, now, I’ll have more time to devote to getting it done and I’m excited about it.’’

Would he ever consider making another racing comeback?

“You never say never, but, just like at 35, I feel like I’ve reached a plateau,’’ de Ferran explained. “Even more so now. I’m an all-in or all-our sort of guy. I can’t see driving a race car as a part-time job. It’s time to get into a new role and a new challenge and make that work.’’

Don’t bet against one of the classiest and most capable guys in the sport. He has a way of making things work – even long shots like coming out of a five-year retirement to drive race cars.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 19 2009
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  • Brian says:

    I always like Gil. Well, once-upon-a-time, when I first saw him in Hall’s yellow car, I didn’t know who he was. But I found out then followed him as I followed the other Brazilians. I’m a freckled American, but for some reasons I’ve enjoyed following the very talented and skilled Mexicans and Brazilians and Scottish/Italian Franchitti. I guess it’s the appeal of the exotic. Maybe after Aryton Senna died, I wanted to see who the next great Brazilian(s) would be…