Race No. 5

Rio 400
Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway — Rio de Janiero, Brazil
May 9-11, 1997

1996 Pole Winner: Alex Zanardi
1996 Race Winner: Andre Ribeiro
1996 SpeedCenter Report
Rio Weather

White Beaches...
CART Returns to Rio

©1997 SpeedCenter Internet Publishing, Inc.

There are countless good reasons tourists consider Rio as a traveldestination. Often the first that comes to mind, and probably the numberone drawing card, is Rio's fantastic and famous beaches.

The infamous song, the "Girl from Ipanema," and the Copacabana have beenthe subject of international hit songs, and even those beaches that havenot been immortalized in song are nonetheless attractive because of it.In fact, their lack of international celebrity status likely makes themeven more alluring as places to get away from the hordes of touriststhat flock to the more celebrated stretches of ocean washed sand.

But the PPG CART World series may eventually change the priorities forwould-be travelers considering the South American destination. The stagewas brilliantly set for the first race in 1996, with the generalpopulation already hungry for open-wheel racing.

The tragic loss of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, in 1994, leftBrazilian race fans not only mourning the death of a national hero, butalso left them thirsty for another Brazilian to dominate withinternational stature the likes of Senna and fellow countryman EmersonFittipaldi. Fittipaldi had been instrumental in the construction of thename-sake Trapezoid-shaped track, and the race itself has now beendubbed the Hollywood Rio 400 with sponsorship coming from the Braziliantobacco company.

The Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway is located within the Nelson PiquetInternational Raceway, and offers CART drivers one of the most uniquetrack configurations they encounter in their schedule. Even though thetrack is slated as an oval, it's odd shape gives the teams set-upchallenges much like a road course. With two sharp turns and heavybraking required, teams preparing for the '96 race had difficulties notonly with brake failure, but also with getting grip coming out of thesharp first and fourth turns.

The inaugural event in '96 gave cause for cheer amongst Brazilian fansas countryman Andre Ribeiro captured his second PPG win, reaching thecheckered flag a commanding 2.141 seconds ahead of second place finisherAl Unser, Jr.

Ribeiro had tearful post race comments:

    "This is the first time everyone - my family, friends, sponsors and the people working with me - have all been together for a race. So I cannot say how much this win means to me with them present. And to win here in Brazil is incredible."

    "The people here did a fantastic job to make this event happen, and I think they should be very proud. [Indy-car] racing, for sure, is going to be one of the biggest events in Brazil."

This year's Hollywood Rio 400 will be run once again for a distance of400 Kilometers, or 248.444 miles (133 circuits of the 1.868 mi track,)and again will offer promise to the Brazilian contingent. An obviousfavorite in Christian Fittipaldi has been sidelined with injuriessuffered from the Surfer's Paradise event earlier this year, but otherBrazilian drivers have shown strength through the '97 season.

Roberto Moreno, driving the KMart Budweiser Swift Ford, temporarilyreplaces Fittipaldi in the Swift 007i, and is a hopeful for a Rio win.Assistance from team mate Michael Andretti, the Newman-Haas team, andthe outstanding oval-track performance of the Goodyear shod cars in '97,give Moreno what he considers his best chance to make a good showing onthe track located in his birthplace. "I will be in Brazil two weeksbefore the race," Robero said in a pre-race CART interview, "It will bea very busy time, but this is good. The atmosphere is great becauseeveryone is very excited for the race. All of my sponsors and familywill be there on race weekend. We will have a lot of support. It is avery special race for me."

"Racing at home is definitely great," Moreno went on to say, "The crowdis fantastic. Last year, I finished ninth [it was his first start withPayton Coyne Racing]. I was able to adapt to the circuit very quickly.I'm looking forward to the race because I know that the team [NewmanHaas] will prepare a good car for me. We are going to work very hard fora good result in Brazil."

Mauricio Gugelmin, a Joinville, Brazil native, in the Pac West HollywoodReynard Mercedes Benz stands sixth in the quest for the '97 PPG Cup,only one point behind fifth place Alex Zanardi.

Other Brazilian drivers with PPG Cup points in the '97 season are: Gilde Ferran, who grew up in Sao Paulo, and drives for Walker Racing in hisValvoline Reynard Honda. Gil is in nineth place in the Cup standings,and was impressively leading the season opener at the Homestead ovaluntil a late race incident with backmarker Dennis Vitolo. Raul Boesel inthe Brahma Reynard Ford is in eleventh place; and defending championAndre Ribeiro in fourteenth place. Andre struggles with the TasmanRacing decision to continue with the thus-far troubled Lola 9700chassis, but with a stronger, more reliable Ford engine than it's '96predecessor.

Gaulter Salles (Indusval Reynard Ford) is another Rio de Janeiro native,and the PPG CART rookie will be making his first appearance in front ofhis home crowd. "I'm excited to be heading back to Brazil. I am lookingfor a good clean weekend like we had at Nazareth and to bring theINDUSVAL/Marlboro Reynard Ford Cosworth to a finish and earn some pointsfor Davis Racing. The car is getting better all the time, and both ourtest at Milwaukee and the Nazareth weekend showed that we are all thetime making progress, which is very good."

"For some, it [the Hollywood Rio 400] may be just another race, and Iwill try to treat it that way myself," Salles said, "but the Brazilianpeople are very excited about auto racing and the television audiencesare just as big, if not bigger, for CART races as they are for FormulaOne [races]. The people will be in the stands waving Brazilian flags andsinging Brazilian songs. It doesn't matter who wins, they will see agood race, but they will be a lot happier if a Brazilian driver wins."

All-in-all, the race promises to be a competitive showing. Seasonpoint-leader Michael Andretti, in the KMart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford,has proven his prowess on ovals this year, winning the season opener atHomestead and challenging for the lead in the late laps at Nazareth.Others drivers to watch for are:

Nazareth winner Paul Tracy and his team mate Al Unser, Jr. in theirMarlboro Penske Mercedes...with Little Al's third place showing atNazareth, and his second place finish at the Rio event last year,neither of these two can be counted out of contention.

Scott Pruett, Raul Boesel's team mate, in his Brahma/Pennzoil ReynardFord (and second in the PPG Cup standings, only four points behindAndretti with 47 points,) would be considered a home favorite. PatrickRacing's Pruett is the only American driver being sponsored by aBrazilian company.

The race will also give Firestone the opportunity to prove their grit onoval courses, after having been badly shown-up at Nazareth, with thefirst four finishers being Goodyear shod.

So next time you plan a trip to South America, you might considerscheduling it around the beautiful beaches of Rio De Janeiro. And youmight also benefit by checking the PPG CART World Series schedule totake in some world-class open-wheel racing. Rumors have it thatBrazilian fans can be a little boisterous, but I doubt that their cheersand songs would drown out a pack of turbo-charged V-8's revving at14,000 RPM.

How exciting can it get? Here's what Craig Davis, owner of Davis Racing thinks about racing in Rio:

    "We know the Rio 400 is going to be a big race, and, in many ways, it'sthe most exciting race of the year for the CART teams because theBrazilian fans have taken to Indy-car racing with a fervor that youdon't always see in American racing. It's a different way of celebratingspeed, and the teams can't help but to get caught up in the excitementand try to put on the best open-wheel racing show they can for those newfans."

PS - There won't be a photo gallery from Rio - SpeedCenter was just dreaming ofvisiting white beaches down south, but when it came to buy plane tickets for the race weekendwe had a rude awakening to financial reality... we'll watch it on TV just like all of you.