CHANGE OF THE GUARD
INDIANAPOLIS, August 26, 2003
After denying his intention to retire for the past few months, Gil de Ferran made it official yesterday at the Penske Racing shops in Reading, PA.
Just a day after teammate Helio Castroneves won the Firestone Indy 225 at nearby Nazareth Speedway, the 2003 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner told his Marlboro Team Penske squad he'd be gone after the final race October 12th at Texas Motor Speedway.
That doesn't mean de Ferran is going to slack off between now and then. There are three races left in the 2003 16-event Indy Racing League IndyCar Series campaign, and The Professor lies second in the points chase to Castroneves (429-404). All year now, Gil has repeatedly talked about "going out on top" and insisted he still "very much enjoys driving."
De Ferran has been racing steadily for 21 years, starting in karts at age 14. Born in France and raised in Brazil, de Ferran spent time as an exchange student in Wisconsin learning, among other things, how to milk cows.
Because he wanted, more than anything else, to race and win, Gil spent six seasons racing in Europe. "I was geared to F1 and felt, at age 19 I should go to Europe."
He won the British F3 title in his second year of competition and moved to FIA F3000 with Jackie and Paul Stewart. "The next step was either Formula One or Indy cars. In 1992 Emerson [Fittipaldi] advised me to consider going to America and in 1993, Nigel [Mansell] came over as F1 champion and won the CART championship too.
'At that time, Reynard was coming to America and I had driven their cars throughout my career, so it seemed a natural." In 1994, de Ferran came to Big Springs, TX to test for legendary car owner and builder Jim Hall. "He made me an offer mid-year and had a solid sponsor in Pennzoil. Jim had all the ingredients to win and, in my first race at Miami," de Ferran chuckled, "I got pole position!"
De Ferran would win for Hall and Pennzoil in the final Laguna Seca race of his first, 1995 CART season, quieting the throng in Victory Circle as he held infant daughter Anna in his arms. It was an endearing image of a man who relishes his sport and his family.
There's some irony here in that, when de Ferran hangs up his helmet at Texas, Sam Hornish Jr. will come onboard to drive for Marlboro Team Penske from his present ride at Pennzoil Panther. The current Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion is also in the title chase, albeit 81 points behind his future teammate Castroneves in fifth place.
One of the most difficult things for de Ferran to do yesterday was tell Castroneves he'd be leaving. They've been good friends as well as teammates and competitors for the past four seasons and "for Helio it was a big shock. We've had a great relationship and it's been tough to keep him out of it. That's one thing I will definitely miss. I've had good times with Helio," de Ferran admitted, but since they live so close (de Ferran in Ft. Lauderdale and Castroneves in Miami), they'll likely continue to see one another.
The past week or so, Hornish has been walking around carrying his own big secret, one that he had to keep from the Panther team he will leave at the end of the year, from the media who thought, for sure he'd be going to NASCAR stock cars, from Castroneves, whom he nearly beat at Nazareth, finishing .1697 seconds behind after 225 laps around this road-course of a mile oval.
Gil de Ferran has led a charmed life, driving for people like the Stewarts, Hall, Derrick Walker and Marlboro Team Penske; he's been an extraordinary tester for these teams, for Reynard, Goodyear, Honda, Toyota and many others.
But he did come to Team Penske at their lowest moment, just after this proud squad lost Gonzalo Rodriguez at Laguna Seca Raceway, just after they lost his potential teammate Greg Moore at California Speedway (then a Penske track) in the 1999 CART season finale.
Team Penske went three years without a victory, an eon for the winningest team in American open wheel racing. It wasn't until de Ferran won at Nazareth in 2000 that the hats commemorating Penske Racing's Indy car win #100 came out of the hospitality truck's bowels. The boxes had been sitting there, gathering dust all that time.
"I spoke to Roger in 1999 and it only took a few minutes for me to realize his commitment to bring this team back to success. I don't ever want to be on the other side against him," de Ferran insisted. De Ferran's familiarity with the team's Reynard/Honda/Goodyear package certainly helped bring success, but mostly it was his driven passion for the job and his desire to devote his entire life to winning races.
That will change in 2004. "Driving will no longer be the main focus of my life. I think it's best to stop now while I'm at my best, while the music is still playing. I'm driving as well as I ever did and, while I've been racing with [the knowledge of my] decision, that hasn't changed how I approach each race."
The two injuries Gil suffered last year at Chicagoland and this March on the Phoenix International Raceway oval didn't play into his decision to stop driving. "You have to drive with enthusiasm and desire. Those injuries didn't play a big part." Neither did his stated longing to road race. "There are risks in any sort of racing and I understood that from Day One."
He probably won't try to repeat at Indy next year. "That's not in the plan and it's a very difficult thing to do, but never say never," he laughed.
In April, when de Ferran's appearance at the Indy 500 was in doubt, he whisked away others' uncertainties by saying, "For me, racing is a selfish pleasure." In August, he said, "I'm having fun in the car and with the team." None of that has changed, but his commitment to continue after this season has lapsed.
Physically and emotionally, it will be a tough act for Sam Hornish Jr. to fill the driving shoes of Gil de Ferran, a two-time CART champion and winner of this year's Indy 500. Roger Penske has always been in de Ferran's pits doing race-day communication with his driver and, for four years, Gil has been Roger's driver.
Can Sam assume that exalted position? We'll have to wait and see.