How Times Have Changed!

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All indications are that unless Tony Kanaan can come up with more sponsorship, he will be limited to running just the five ovals for the 2020 season in the NTT IndyCar Series. When ABC Supply ended their fifteen-year sponsorship with AJ Foyt Enterprise, it clouded the future for Kanaan and the team owned by the IndyCar legend.

Nothing between Foyt and Kanaan has been confirmed, meaning that if Kanaan somehow comes up with a large sponsorship package – he could still run the entire season. But with nothing confirmed the possibility also exists that a young and unproven driver with connections to some mysterious European corporation could come in and buy the whole ride in Kanaan’s car.

Charlie Kimball is rumored to be in the running for some of the non-ovals, but unless he secures more than he had last season for Carlin, he won’t be running all of them.

But this isn’t about Foyt’s sponsorship or lack thereof – it’s about the dearth of Brazilian drivers in the series. If Kanaan runs only the ovals next season, that means when the cars are on the grid at St. Petersburg next March, there will not be a single Brazilian in any of them.

My, how times have changed!

When the 2010 season started a decade earlier, there were six fulltime Brazilian drivers on the grid (Vitor Meira, Tony Kanaan, Mario Romancini, Rafa Matos, Mario Moraes and Helio Castroneves) and one part-timer (Ana Beatriz since the season-opener was in São Paulo). Keep in mind that there were only twenty-two fulltime cars on the grid that season, so more than a quarter of the field was made up of Brazilian drivers. The 2010 Indianapolis 500 featured all six of those drivers as well as Beatriz and Bruno Junqueira, meaning that eight of the thirty-three drivers hailed from Brazil.

The Brazilian invasion started when Brazilian and two-time Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi, came out of a four-year retirement to run in CART and drive in the Indianapolis 500. Five years later, he won the 1989 CART championship as well as the 1989 Indianapolis 500. It was also at this time that his countryman, Ayrton Senna, was in the midst of establishing his own legacy. Senna won the World Championship in 1988, 1990 and 1991.

On the heels of sweeping the 1989 season, Fittipaldi moved from Pat Patrick’s team to Roger Penske. Between Fittipaldi in CART and Senna in F1, the familiar Marlboro chevrons were becoming synonymous with Brazil and winning.

Brazilian Raul Boesel followed Fittipaldi to Indy cars in 1985 and Roberto Moreno joined his countrymen at Indianapolis in 1986. Former three-time Formula One champion Nelson Piquet joined Fittipaldi and Boesel at Indianapolis in 1993, after sustaining serious practice injuries at the brickyard a year earlier. Fittipaldi won his second Indianapolis 500 in 1993, while Boesel finished fourth. The 1994 race featured four Brazilian drivers, with Boesel and Fittipaldi both on the front-row.

Although Fittipaldi was part of Team Penske’s infamous failure to qualify for the 1995 race; there were five Brazilians that did qualify – his nephew Christian Fittipaldi, Boesel, Mauricio Gugelmin, André Ribeiro and future Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran.

Due to The Split in 1996, only one Brazilian driver made the field for the Indianapolis 500 – Marco Greco. But the competing 1996 US 500 at Michigan contained seven Brazilian drivers in its twenty-seven car starting field.

By the 1999 season, as many as twelve Brazilian drivers drove in CART either full-time or on a part-time basis. Four Brazilians drove in the IRL that season, but three of them bounced between the two series, so that’s a little misleading. But it is clear that Brazil was a major developer and exporter of drivers, just a decade after Emerson Fittipaldi won his first Indianapolis 500. Although Senna had been fatally injured at Imola in 1994, Formula One had no shortage of Brazilian drivers either by the end of the nineties. Three Brazilian drivers made up the 1999 F1 grid, including Rubens Barrichello.

The influx of Brazilian drivers into IndyCar continued throughout the next decade, as proven by the six fulltime Brazilian drivers and the two part-time drivers in 2010. Drivers were not the only thing being supplied by Brazil. Sponsorship dollars were flowing in as well. Brazilian beer companies, Brahma and Itaipava, provided primary and associate sponsorships along with Hollywood cigarettes. When IndyCar switched from methanol to ethanol in the mid-2000s, the sugar cane-based ethanol was originally supplied from Brazil.

ApexBrasil, a Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, became a major sponsor for the series in 2008. Although they were not the title sponsor, it is rumored that their yearly investment in the series surpassed that of title sponsor IZOD. However, their support went away following the 2014 season.

Fast-forward just a few years beyond that 2010 season. The 2011 and 2012 Indianapolis 500s had four Brazilians each. 2013 had three Brazilians in the Indianapolis 500 – less than half of what 2010 had. By 2015, there were only two – Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. Helio’s last year of fulltime competition was 2017, but he has driven in both “500s” since then. If Tony Kanaan is limited to ovals only in 2020, it will be the first season without a fulltime Brazilian driver on the grid since 1983.

A decade ago, there was some hand-wringing that Brazilians were taking over the series. In 2010, there were seven fulltime American drivers compared to six Brazilians. By 2019, that balance had shifted to nine fulltime Americans and two fulltime Brazilians (Kanaan and Matheus Leist). Next year it looks as if no Brazilians will race fulltime in the NTT IndyCar Series.

As an American, I’m always glad to see an increase in the American drivers. But I’ve always appreciated the international diversity of this series. Brazil used to be a factory for producing quality drivers, but no longer. There were no Brazilian drivers in Formula One this past season and it looks as if that will be the case in IndyCar next season as well – for full-timers anyway.

What’s even more bizarre is that there are few Brazilian drivers coming up. I don’t follow any of the ladder series, but I’m told by those that know that the pipeline for open-wheel racers in Brazil has virtually dried up. Lucas Kohl was the only Brazilian in Indy Lights this past season and he finished eighth among eight fulltime drivers in that series. There were two Brazilian full-timers in this year’s US F2000 Championship and not a single Brazilian driver in the Indy Pro 2000 series.

What happened to create this drought of drivers from a country that seemed to produce a never-ending supply of drivers just a decade ago? Is it the Brazilian economy? Is it a shift in a culture that at one time idolized Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna?

I don’t know the answer to why this has happened, but the facts don’t lie. Open-wheel racing is no longer one of the top sports in Brazil. Overall, I feel that that trend is not good for the overall and long-term financial health of IndyCar.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “How Times Have Changed!”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Sergio Sette Camara is currently a F2 driver who is rumored to be a possible full time driver for Coyne, Foyt or Carlin. He is Brazilian and would keep the Brazil streak going. We shall see.

  2. George, I think you may have overlooked a Brazilian driver (and a rather attractive one) currently working her way up the “road to Indy ladder system”. She is Bruna Tomaselli from Caibi, Brazil. More about her can be found on the Wisconsin racing based website Pabst Racing.com. She is also on Facebook. Her favorite driver as you might imagine is Ayrton Senna. She is worth a mention. I hope to see her in a IndyCar someday.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    The decline of the Brazilian open wheel driver is interesting as, though Brazilian sponsors were not uncommon, most of those who entered Indycar and F1 in the 90s and 00s did not appear to be bankrolled entirely by Brazilian sponsors.

    Granted, that may have been the case in the development series and that money drying up could explain why so few Brazilians are in the Road To Indy.

  4. Another Brazilian driver coming up the ladder is Edwardo Barrichello of San Paulo, Brazil. IndyCar fans will remember his dad. Edwardo was recently signed by the Wisconsin based Pabst Racing organization that also recently signed another Brazilian driver, Bruna Tomasselli Pabst has good scouts in Brazil. The founder of Pabst Racing was Augie Pabst, a very, very good sports car racer. Dan Anderson is very much aware of both Tomasselli and Barrichello.

  5. Great research George. When you see all these names on the whole, my God I’ve forgotten just how many great drivers came out of Brazil. As an IndyCar fan, sure I think of Emo, Helio, and TK. But then you throw in Senna, Piquet, and Rubens? What a legacy!

    Does anyone remember Vitor Meira? I liked him. He was fast and drove well at the Speedway and seemed to have the talent. It just never came together for him. I know we can say this about a lot of drivers, but I wonder what could have been for him if he raced for a top team.

  6. I know I am in the minority but I am totally fine with TK being put out of a ride. Not that the Foyt car is sought after but it’s time, it’s been time for him to go for awhile now. Not even Indy has been a level playing field for him recently. I am also fine with Pigot being out after under-performing. I know this is off of the Brazilian driver topic a bit but I am quite over TK being a full time driver.

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