New Owner Has Matos Smiling

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 24 2010

Raphael Matos appears to be on his way up in the world of IndyCar racing. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Driving heros? Raphael Matos says he really didn’t have any when he was growing up in Brazil. Aryton Senna, of course, but that was later. After Matos saw how Senna’s death gripped the people of his country.

But heros? Not really.

What Matos did have during his formative years as a driver was small list of Brazilians he admired. People like Emerson Fittipaldi. And, near the very top of the list, Gil de Ferran. But what Matos admired most about de Ferran was not the driving victories and championships, but what the former engineering student accomplished behind the scenes as in roles of team manager and owner.

A couple months ago, Matos got one of those phone calls people remember for the rest of their lives. This one concerned one of the people whom Matos admires most.

The call came from Matos’ bosses at Luczo Dragon Racing. They called to tell him that their Indy Racing League team had just reached agreement to merge with the team of de Ferran. Matos was about to become, he was told, the driver of the No. 2 de Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing car.

Great call.

One which Matos knew immediately knew the meaning of – for him, his team, his driving career.

“I think it was the piece we’re missing on our team,” Matos said Tuesday, still so excited he would rather talk about the call than stuff his face with the plate of wonderful Kansas City barbeque which was sitting in front of him.

To use a term of the times, Luczo is a mid major in the IndyCar series. It debuted as a one-car effort for the 2007 Indianapolis 500. It raced six times in 2008 and went full time last season with Matos as driver.

But from the start, Luczo appeared to have a bit more going for it than some other teams hoping get to Division I in IndyCar.

It was founded by Steve Luczo, a guy with a solid background in business management who is a minority partner in the Boston Celtics, and Jay Penske. Penske has a fairly solid background himself – in business and in racing. He is he youngest son of American open-wheel racing’s most successful team owner, Roger Penske.

In the team debut in 2007, their car, with Ryan Briscoe driving, finished fifth in the biggest race in the world.

In its first full IndyCar season, the team had eight top-10 finishes in the 17 starts. Matos was named rookie of the year.

The barbeque sits untouched as Matos talks about adding de Ferran – a former series champion and Indy 500-winner who is known as much for his team-building skills as his driving skills – to the Luczo organization.

“He’s a race car driver who won the (Champ Car) championship – two times – the Indy 500,” Matos said. “He has huge, huge technical knowledge. He spent a lot of time with Penske (Roger, that is), spent a few years in Formula One as well. He was able to learn a lot in that series. He was able to accomplish a championship in American Le Mans (in 2009) and has a lot of knowledge on that and is bringing what he knows to the team.”

“For me personally, he’s huge. Huge for my confidence level because I know Gil is a guy who has alway been on my side. He is the guy who introduced me to Jay Penske and Steve. I credit a lot of the reasons I am on that team is because of Gil.”

Not that Matos cannot stand on his own talents. His resume could not be much more complete.

Matos, 28, has been series champion in such super competitive places as Star Mazda, Barber Dodge, Champ Car Atlantics and Firestone Indy Lights.

He’s stood on the top of the podium at the Rolex 24 in Daytona after winning in GT and drove Grand-Am prototypes to race victories.

Get it? The guy has won everywhere he had been up to IndyCar. And that is something that some of his higher-profile IndyCar competitors have not done. Like the competitor who was in his face, chastising him, after the race in St. Petesburg, Fla. last spring.

Matos was involved in a crash that day with Danica Patrick. Video appeared to show that Matos had drew alongside of Patrick during an attempt at a pass and that she chopped down on him.

Patrick did not see it that way. So there sat Matos on a St. Pete wall listening to a lecture.

“She was very angry and she said, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ And I said, well, I said I was on the inside,” Matos said.

“She made a mistake passing a lapped car. She missed a gear coming out of a corner and I had a really good run on her and was on the inside of her and just crashed. She had her reason to be angry and later on I apologized to her and it’s all good now.”

It could all be on the verge of being great now.

The 2010 season began two weeks ago with a race in Sao Paulo Brazil. It was a big day for all of the Brazilian drivers in IndyCar. It was almost huge for Matos.

Late in the race, he was running third through the streets of Brazil’s largest city. Fans were going crazy as right behind Matos near the front of the field was another Brazilian, Vitor Meira.

It appeared that Matos was headed for his first IndyCar podium finish but Meira got past.

Still, Matos finished fourth, his best finish in the series.

This weekend he will try to better that as IndyCar returns to the streets of St. Pete.

There, once again, Matos and his one-car team will attempt to show Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport that soloists can rock in IndyCar.

“We can,” Matos said when asked about getting competitive with the multi-car operations. “But we need to improve on our consistency. What makes those guys so good is not that they are winning every weekend, you know? But they are consistently there every weekend.”

With de Ferran on board, chances for consistency have taken a great leap forward.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 24 2010
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