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Indianapolis 500 : Part-Time Hoosier : It Must Be May, Because Fittipaldi Is in His Indiana Mode

May 27, 1994|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Emerson Fittipaldi is a 47-year-old Brazilian millionaire who lives in Key Biscayne, Fla., except in May when he becomes a citizen of Indiana.

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"For four weeks, I bring my family here, we rent a house and I live like a businessman," the defending Indianapolis 500 champion said. "For sure, I love coming here each year. There is so much tradition. Each year, the first time I walk through Gasoline Alley I get such a good feeling.

"I was thinking about it the other day, and next year I will have spent an entire year of my life in Indianapolis." One month at a time for 12 years.

Emmo, as everyone calls the former two-time Formula One champion, credits his home environment for much of his success here, including his victories in 1989 and last year--two of the most competitive 500s at the Speedway.

In 10 500s, he has finished in the top five four times, placing second in 1988 and third in 1990.

He will be starting on the front row for the third time in 11 races Sunday after his qualifying speed of 227.303 m.p.h. in a Mercedes-Benz-powered Penske was bettered only by pole-sitter and teammate Al Unser Jr. and fellow Brazilian Raul Boesel.

"Mentally, Indianapolis is the toughest track because it is the same four corners, the same garage, the same people, the same routine for a month," Fittipaldi said. "Being mentally prepared is the key to the Indy 500.

"A little home cooking and being with my family helps me to relax and recharge my batteries. That way, when I come back the next day I am mentally and physically ready. It is easy to get worn out."

Sunday's 500 miles should come easy for him. Since arriving on May 8, Fittipaldi has logged 2,052 miles--more than four complete races--while testing the reliability of the new Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine, designed specifically for the Indy 500 by Ilmor Engineering.

No one else is even close in number of laps here this month.

"The Mercedes is fantastic ," he said, using one of his favorite words. "We knew it would have the horsepower, but (car owner) Roger (Penske) wanted to make sure of its reliability. He wanted us to wring it out. Junior (Unser Jr.) did 500 miles in racing conditions at Michigan before we came here, but we wanted to put as many miles on it as we could right here.

"For sure, we are very pleased. It is not as easy as people say. Ilmor has given us the horsepower, but it is no good if you can't get it around the corners. That has been what we work on.

"It is different to drive. It has a different torque, a different acceleration than the regular Ilmor engine.

"It will be a very fast 500 miles, very competitive, very little passing. The cars are so close (in qualifying speeds) that passing will be possible mostly on restarts or in traffic. It will be like last year, when 10 cars were still on the same lap at the finish."

Fittipaldi started ninth last year, and although he passed Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy at the start to move into seventh, he lost a lap to the leaders during a flurry of yellow flags.

"It was like a cold shower when I found myself a lap down," he explained. "I had worked so hard getting up to third, and I was right on (Mario Andretti's) gearbox dicing for second place when I got caught in the wrong place when the yellow came out.

"When I lost the lap, it put me in traffic trying to pass slower cars, and I wasn't used to that problem. The guys in front of me were running smoothly, but they were about 7 m.p.h. slower than I could potentially run on my own. It was frustrating.

"Then I got a break of my own when Paul (Tracy) had his accident and I got my lap back on his yellow. I was still back of cars, but I felt better because I knew I was in a good position to race with them."

After 400 miles, the race turned on three yellow-flag restarts.

On Lap 179, Fittipaldi was between Andretti, the leader, and Mansell. On the restart, Mansell swept past both into the lead.

"I heard Nigel complaining that he didn't have experience to know what to do on restarts," Fittipaldi said, "but he bloody well did a good job on that one.

"When I saw Mario back off a little when Nigel passed him, I decided to try and pass Mario in the short chute. We were side by side through the second turn. His front wheel was inside the wheelbase of my car. I do not know today what kept us from contact. It was fantastic at that speed."

With 17 laps remaining, another yellow flag presented Fittipaldi with an opportunity to get the lead for the first time.

"I said to myself, 'It's now or never,' and I concentrated on getting a good jump on the restart," he said. "When I passed Nigel before Turn 1, I had clear sailing for the first time all day."

It was not over yet.

Seven laps from the finish, still another yellow flag slowed the pace.

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