He was fast on the track and therefore fast-tracked to the top.
All he wanted to be was the best the world had ever seen. Mistakes weren’t an option. He knew that early and thought about it often. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when a 16-year-old Brazilian boy nicknamed “Rato” (Portuguese for mouse) had a change of heart about what he wanted to do in life.
Rato and his brother “Tigrao” (big tiger) wereout racing boats when Rato’s brother flipped at 70 mph and landed upside down. In a flash, Emerson Fittipaldi’s career was decided. “It was a miracle that my brother survived” he once told his biographer, “and from then on, I knew I was given a second chance to make the most of my life.”
The tale of one of the greatest racers of all time begins in Sao Paulo, Brazil with the Fittipaldi brothers changing course and going to karting, and ends in Victory Lane around the world.
The mouse would be OK, after all. And in the end he would even have a new nickname: Emmo.
Born on the 12th day of December in 1946, Fittipaldi was a world champion in open-wheel racing, from Formula One to the best North American circuits, twice winning the Indianapolis 500.
The youngest son of prominent Brazilian motorsports journalist and radio commentator Wilson Fittipaldi Sr., and his wife Juzy, a Polish refugee, he was named after American author and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emmo was pretty talented, even in his teens. The boys fired up their own enterprise, which began with a steering wheel that Emerson made for his mother’s car, then developed into a thriving custom-car accessory business. Then came Fittipaldi Karts, built and raced by the brothers, though more successfully by Emerson, who became a Brazilian kart champion at the age of 18. In 1967, when the Fittipaldis turned to constructing Volkswagen-powered Formula Vee single seaters, Emerson drove one of them to the Brazilian championship.
It was all full speed ahead. And the speed of his racing success at home prompted Emerson to abandon the pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree at university and compete abroad. In 1969, alone and unable to speak anything other than his native Portuguese, he arrived in England, bought a Formula Ford and was an immediate winner.
A step up to Formula Three produced similarly impressive results and a reward in the form of a Lotus Formula Two contract for 1970. Quickly a top F2 contender, he was given a long-term contract by Lotus boss Colin Chapman, who eased him into his Formula One team near the end of the 1970 season. The promotion, in a third Lotus as understudy to regular drivers Jochen Rindt and John Miles, was intended to provide further seasoning for a driver who had leapfrogged up the racing ladder with staggering speed.
Tragedy changed everything.
Having made his Formula One debut in the 1970 British Grand Prix, Emerson then finished fourth in Germany and also ran well in Austria. Then came the ill-fated Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where Jochen Rindt was killed in a crash during practice. Earlier that day Emmo had also crashed at high speed but was unhurt, though severely shaken. His remaining teammate John Miles was so upset at Monza that he left Formula One racing forever.
Emmo had three championship races on his resume and was now leading Team Lotus.
“Pretty impressive responsibility at that age,” his biography would reveal.
In the next race he achieved the best possible result, winning the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y., to rejuvenate the devastated team and guarantee that the 1970 driving title would go posthumously to Rindt.
Armed with what was arguably the greatest Formula One design at the time, the Lotus 72D, Fittipaldi proved unstoppable in 1972 as he won five of 11 races and easily won the F1 Drivers’ Championship over Jackie Stewart.
At age 25 he was then the youngest champion in F1 history (his record was eventually topped by 24 year-old Fernando Alonso).
Fittipaldi eventually left Lotus to sign with the promising McLaren team where he had three victories in 1974 and beat out Clay Regazzoni in a close battle for his second championship.
Then, at the height of his F1 success, Fittipaldi shocked everyone by leaving McLaren to race for older brother Wilson Fittipaldi’s Copersucar-sponsored Fittipaldi Automotive team.
It was hardly a world-class organization and he struggled, even failing to qualify for three races in his time there. He remained with the team for five seasons but only managed a best finish of second. Emmo decided to retire from racing at the end of 1980, admitting his last two years in Formula One were very unhappy.
He was only 33, but had been racing in Formula One for a decade. The team struggled for another two years with minimal sponsorship, before going into receivership at the end of 1982.
Two years later he made a remarkable comeback, not in Formula One but in the Indy Car open-wheel North American series. He soon became a crowd favorite with his open love of racing and his gracious attitude to his fellow drivers.
Emmo’s smooth style and experience would result in two Indianapolis 500 victories on that fearsome track.
The second victory would be memorable, not for what happened on the track, but for him breaking Indy victory lane tradition when he drank a celebratory bottle of orange juice instead of the traditional bottle of milk. He was only the second driver to not drink milk at Indy since the tradition was founded in 1936.
Fittipaldi owned several orange groves in his native Brazil, and wanted to promote the citrus industry. He was widely criticized and ridiculed for the action, even though he later took a sip of milk.
He finally retired for good after suffering neck injuries in a crash at the start of the US 500 in Michigan in 1996 and later back injuries in a small airplane crash. Today he continues his involvement in motorsports on multiple levels loved by fans on two continents.
Rato became Emmo who became a cult hero.
“I was extremely lucky. I had some huge crashes and yet I am still here,” he said.
A long way from Brazil, but a global citizen.
Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.