Brazilian Drivers Out To Become National Heroes

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 14 2010
Tony Kanaan takes practice laps on the streets of Sao Paulo. Kanaan is one of a group of Brazilians competing in this weekend's race. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Tony Kanaan takes practice laps on the streets of Sao Paulo. Kanaan is one of a large group of Brazilians competing in this weekend's race. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Remember Andre Ribiero? Tens of millions of Brazilians do and quite vividly. Ribiero became a national hero a decade and a half ago when he won the CART race in Rio de Janeiro.

This weekend, a handful of other Brazilian drivers will be seeking to become heroes in front of their fellow countrymen as American open-wheel racing returns to their country with the Sao Paulo 300.

The race through the streets of Sao Paulo, which is Brazil’s largest city and located a couple hundred miles to the south and west of Rio, is the 2010 season opener for the IndyCar Series.

It will mark the first time the series has run a race in South America.

For the large handful of Brazilian drivers competing in the IndyCar Series this year, it be the second most important race on the schedule.

“The (Brazilian) guy that wins here,” Brazilian driver Helio Castroneves of Team Penske, said during a teleconference last week, “or the girl, we have Ana Beatriz, the first Brazilian woman to be in IndyCar, no question, for every Brazilian here right now, it will be exciting to win because everybody will know this person.

“It happened in the past with Andre Ribeiro when he won in 1996. He became a big star of Indy car over here. Like I said, we’re talking about 14 years ago. But certainly it would be huge. It would be great. I’m sure we’re going try everything we can to have one of the Brazilians win the race. Hopefully it will be a Brazilian. If it’s not, it’s OK.”

Tony Kanaan of Andretti Autosport won the 2004 IndyCar championship. He’s won 13 races in the series.

He is coming off a winless 2009 season and would like nothing more than to start the 2010 season with a victory in front of the home folk.

“As a Brazilian getting ready to open the season in Brazil, it is hard to explain the excitement and the pressure that I’m feeling,” Kanaan said. “Our fans in Brazil are so passionate for us and so supportive of us, but they will expect nothing less than a win on Sunday. It’s going to be a challenging circuit, but I’m looking forward to getting in the Team 7-Eleven car and getting the season going.”

The Sao Paulo course is 2.6 miles around and features 11 turns. The race is scheduled to go 75 laps, which is 195 miles.

Problems with the track popped up on Saturday. Sections of it proved slippery. Several cars wreck in practice in the slippery portions and qualifying had to be bumped back to Sunday, race day.

Indy Racing League officials and race promoters spent Saturday night attempting to fix the problem. For the sake of their fans, the Brazilian drivers hope the fixes work.

Seven Brazilians are entered in today’s race: Castroneves, Kanaan, Beatriz, Raphael Matos, Vitor Meira, Mario Moraes and Mario Romancini.

It will be tough to count the number of Brazilians who will be watching. Castroneves said there will be a lot.

“It’s great to give the opportunity to the Brazilian fans to see an IndyCar race right there, going right past by them,” the three-time and defending winner of the Indianapolis 500, said. “It’s been 10 years that the Indy car has not been in Brazil, but there are people that are really fans (of the sport). They follow on TV, but the general public sometimes doesn’t know about it. Now it’s a great, great opportunity to show them what American fans are able to see.”

They will see a track which has sharp turns and one long straightaway.

“I think it’s going to be interesting,” Castroneves said of his hometown track, “especially because everybody knows when you have two cars side-by-side, it creates a great draft for the guy behind. If you have three guys battling for the lead, imagine the last corner, one of the hardest braking areas of the circuit, one turn before the finish line. It will be something. It will be an incredible finish.

“The most experienced driver probably will take advantage. But at the same time the bravest one might be able to get that win. It will be interesting. I guess everybody needs to keep watching because it will definitely be a great show.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 14 2010
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