By A.J. Foyt
Armored car or helicopter?
That was the question Vitor Meira asked me about how I wanted to go from the Sao Paulo, Brazil airport to the hotel. I thought to myself, hell maybe I should just stay home. My heart doctors say I need to stay calm these days.
Last year when we raced in his home country, Vitor picked us up from the airport and drove us to the hotel. I’ll say this, it was exciting. We saw a police car almost rear-end another car in traffic and I about pushed my imaginary brake pedal through the floor watching Vitor avoid all the mopeds zipping in and out of our lane!
This year the ride from the airport was dull because we were in a regular van and there was no traffic. However, the ride back to the airport was something I had never experienced before—and at 76 years old, that’s saying something. But I’ll save that story for the end.
The weather was beautiful on Thursday when we arrived and it was sunny on Friday and Saturday. Vitor qualified 14th, just missing on advancing to the next group for the third time this year. That put the ABC Supply car on the outside of row seven.
For all the nice weather, it turned bad on race day—after the morning warm up. It started raining hard enough just before the race that everyone had to switch to Firestone’s rain tires. The drivers came down for the start and as they tried to go through the first set of turns, Helio Castroneves (starting seventh on the inside) ended up in the wall. Simona DeSilvestro was starting 13th alongside of Vitor and she had nowhere to go as did Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan. Vitor made it through just fine.
He made it through the restart on lap six too which saw a couple more guys spinning—Vitor was now seventh! But it was raining so hard that the race shouldn’t have been restarted. When it rains hard on a street course, there’s no place for the water to go. His good fortune ended when he ran over a piece of debris from another accident on the back straight which is almost a mile long. It cut his front brake line. He pumped that pedal and downshifted trying to stop. His rear brakes (separate system) locked up, so he spun and hit the wall near the entrance to the hairpin. They threw the red two laps later. Two laps too late.
They shouldn’t have restarted that race in those conditions. Vitor said it was raining so hard he couldn’t see anything. There have been a couple decisions this year when the officials have been slow to throw a full course yellow. I understand entertainment and wanting to get on with the show but it’s getting ridiculous. It’s dangerous for the drivers and for the safety workers who are trying to get cars turned around and restarted. Maybe there are too many officials in race control—it should go back to the way it used to be with one guy calling the shots. We didn’t have the problems we have now.
The rain delay lasted almost 2 ½ hours which gave us time to fix the ABC Supply car’s front brakes, right front hub and right rear suspension. At first my crew thought the car was too far gone to fix but I told them we didn’t come all this way to watch if there was a chance we could still race. When we’re overseas, we don’t have all the tools we normally have so it was more of a challenge for the mechanics but once the decision was made, they got to work. And we made it back out to the grid instead of settling for 26th which is where we would have finished. I was proud of them for stepping up like they did.
They tried to start the race again but after a lap they threw the yellow and then the red. We were done for the day. The race restarted on Monday morning. After the green was thrown, everyone pitted for rain tires because it started to rain again! It wasn’t as bad as Sunday though. We started 21st and Vitor stayed out of the way of the leaders because he was two laps down. With the race being a timed race and just an hour 20 minutes left, it was doubtful he could get his laps back because the leaders would only have to pit once for fuel.
Some drivers who were many laps down were racing the leaders which I thought was wrong. When I was driving (and winning), I hated it when lapped cars would race me harder than they would when we were racing for position. It’s hard on a driver when your car is competitive to let the leaders go, but you have to be smart about it. Vitor was and he was only two laps down, not nine. It boils down to respect for your fellow drivers. I was surprised because the drivers who were doing it are talented and smarter than that. I expected more from them.
When the checkered flag waved after 55 laps, Vitor finished 17th. Believe it or not, he was the best of the Brazilians again! As he said, “Not a good day for the Brazilians.”
Now for my memorable experience!
We headed to the airport about an hour after the race ended. I watched our van driver miss--by inches--a couple on a moped that crossed in front of us to exit the highway. How he missed them, I don’t know. More memorable was the traffic jam caused by a police roadblock a few miles later.
Our interpreter rolled down her window and said something to the policeman (I have no idea what). He then jerked open the big passenger door and I was staring at an Uzi! Yeah, a submachine gun! I didn’t know what to think but I positioned myself to be ready to get one kick in if this guy did anything funny (yep, pretty sure it would have been my last kick). He looked around at everyone, slammed the door shut and waved us on. Our interpreter said it happens about once a month but that was a first for me! I like Brazil but I was glad when we got back on the jet and headed home.
I leave for Indy in about a week. I never thought when I won the Indianapolis 500 in ‘61 that I’d be around to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of my favorite race! Not too many other people did either.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my first 500 victory than to watch one of my drivers--either Vitor Meira or Bruno Junqueira—win their first Indy 500!
That would be memorable indeed.