No Formula 1 World Champion has had a more successful second act behind the wheel of a race car than Emerson Fittipaldi. In fact, I met Emmo, as he is known to U.S. racing fans, at the peak of his post F1 success, at the 1989 Indianapolis 500. He drove the Chevrolet-powered, Penske PC-18 for Patrick Racing in one of the most exciting finishes in the Greatest Spectacle in Motor Racing’s illustrious history.
I was a 29-year old copywriter/creative director at Campbell-Ewald Advertising heading up Chevrolet motorsports and spent the better part of the month of May at Indy supervising photographers and video crews that would capture the imagery we’d use for that year’s advertising campaign.
Like many champions, Emerson (who was named after American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) was raised in a racing family. Both his father and mother raced production cars in Brazil after World War II. His father, Wilson, was also a well-known motorsports journalist and one of the founding organizers of the Mil Milhas, a road race modeled after the Mille Miglia. The younger of the couple’s two sons, Emerson and his brother Wilson, Jr. both competed in motorsports, starting their careers on 50cc motorcycles and quickly moved from sports cars to Formula Vee cars in Brazil, with Emerson winning the title in 1968.
In 1969, Fittipaldi left for Europe giving himself a three-month timeline to prove himself worthy of a seat in the higher formulas on the continent. It didn’t take that long. He began the year driving Formula Ford cars but ended the year as the Formula 3 champion driving a Lotus 59 for Jim Russell Racing. Emerson began the 1970 season a Team Bardahl Lotus 59B in Formula 2 and performed well enough that he was given an opportunity in the third Team Lotus Formula 1 car for the British Grand Prix. He qualified 21st in the older Lotus 49, but managed to bring the car home in eighth place. He showed enough to team owner Colin Chapman to earn the seat for the rest of the season and rewarded that confidence with a fourth place finish in his next race at the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring.
Two races later in Monza, Fittipaldi’s and Lotus’ fates were forever changed when lead driver Jochen Rindt was killed in pre-race practice and number two driver, John Miles quit the team, leaving Emerson with the number one seat. Team Lotus withdrew from the Italian Grand Prix, and didn’t compete in Canada, but when they returned for the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Fittipaldi delivered a victory for Lotus that clinched the Manufacturer’s championship and ensured Rindt would win the driver’s championship posthumously.
Fittipaldi finished sixth in the championship in 1971 while the team worked out issues with the Lotus 72 chassis. In 1972, everything was sorted and Fittipaldi’s talent behind the wheel ensured a dominant season for both Lotus and the Brazilian. With five wins and three other podium finishes over the twelve race season, Fittipaldi finished 16 points ahead of second place driver, Jackie Stewart, becoming the youngest driver to win the Formula 1 championship at just 25. It took 33 years before Fernando Alonso finally eclipsed that feat.
1973 started where ’72 left off with Fittipaldi winning three of the first four races. After finishing second at the Monaco Grand Prix, he had a slim lead in the championship points over Stewart. But Chapman, hoping to dominate the season (which he did as a constructor) had hired SuperSwede, Ronnie Petersen giving the team two #1 drivers, an experiment that created tensions. During the second half of the year the two were so busy racing each other, they allowed Stewart to walk away with the title.
The tension was untenable for Fittipaldi who left Lotus at the end of the year, blaming Chapman’s failed strategy for the loss of a second consecutive title. As fortune would have it, there was a seat opening at McLaren, a team on the rise and Fittipaldi slid right in.
The 1974 season was as wide open and competitive as any in the history of the sport. With the retirement of Jackie Stewart at the end of the previous year and several driver’s changing teams, the only certainty going into the year was uncertainty. Lotus, McLaren, Ferrari, Tyrrell, even upstart Hesketh with James Hunt in the cockpit delivered competitive pace. Seven different drivers won races over the course of the season with 14 finding the podium at least once.
Fittipaldi was as consistent and fast as anyone to start the season. He finished in the top ten in each of the first eight races, winning both his home Brazilian Grand Prix and the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles. Through the Netherlands race he held a slim margin over Ferrari drivers, Nikki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni. With three DNFs in the following six races, Fittipaldi was fortunate to score two seconds and a first in those he finished, and was tied with Regazzoni going into the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
Fittipaldi qualified eighth for the race with Regazzoni right behind him in ninth. Once the green flag dropped, however, it was obvious there was something wrong with Regazzoni’s Ferrari as he struggled to keep pace with the field. Fittipaldi moved up methodically and spent most of the race comfortably in fifth, shadowing Jodi Scheckter who had an outside chance at the title trailing by seven points. On the 44th lap, the Ford engine in Scheckter’s Tyrrell lost fuel pressure and he slowed to a stop as Fittipaldi cruised the final 15 laps, finishing a minute and seventeen seconds behind race-winner, Carlos Reutmann. With Regazzoni finishing out of the points in 11th place, Fittipaldi captured his second title in three years and helped McLaren win the first of its eight constructor’s championships.
In 1975, Fittipaldi finished second behind Lauda, who found the consistency to go along with his blazing speed, thus running away with the title for Ferrari. Then in a move driven by both family and patriotism, Fittipaldi stunned the entire F1 establishment, leaving McLaren at the end of the season to join his brother Wilson’s Team. Backed by the Brazilian sugar/ethanol cooperative Copersucar, Fittipaldi Automotive competed unsuccessfully in the ’75 season with Wilson as the lead driver. It was hoped that with Emerson behind the wheel and Wilson managing operations their fortunes would turn around. After a promising start – Emerson qualified fifth in their first race at Interlagos – the season went quickly downhill. Over the next five years, the team fought for respectability with only flashes of brilliance. Emerson finished second in Brazil in 1978. But after struggling the next two years, Fittipaldi retired after the 1980 season, ending a ten-year run as one of the most respected and well liked drivers in the sport.
Emmo began his second act four years later in the United States driving Indy Cars in the CART series. He quickly showed he still had it and joined Patrick Racing – one of the leading teams of the era – for the final six races of the 1984 season. In 1989 it all came together for Fittipaldi and Patrick. They won the Indy 500 – taking home the first ever million dollar purse – and four other races that year, finishing ten points ahead of Penske driver Rick Mears for the title. From 1990 through 1995 Fittipaldi drove for Penske winning 11 races including the 1993 Indy 500. He skipped practice in 1994 to serve as a pallbearer at the funeral of his friend and countryman, Ayrton Senna. In the race he crashed while leading by almost a full lap with just 15 laps remaining. In 1996 driving for Hogan Racing, Emerson had a hard crash during the first lap of the Marlboro 500 at Michigan International Speedway. He suffered a fractured vertebra, broken shoulder and collapsed lung. Nearing 50 years of age, Fittipaldi took this as a sign it was time to retire.
Fittipaldi remains an ambassador for both McLaren and Chevrolet and in 2008 had a special edition Corvette named in his honor. In 2017 Emerson partnered with the Pininfarina design studio and race engineering firm HWA to create a mid-engined, V8-powered GT car, the Fittipaldi EF7.