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June 17, 1997

Christian Fittipaldi

T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon, everyone, welcome to the CART media teleconference. We're pleased you could all join us today. We'd like to extend a special welcome to our guest this afternoon, driver Christian Fittipaldi of Newman/Haas Racing. Christian, thanks for being with us today.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

T.E. McHALE: Christian, driver of the K-Mart Budweiser Swift Ford makes his return to the PPG CART World Series at this weekend's Budweiser GI Joe's 200 presented by Texaco Havoline after missing seven events while recovering from a broken right leg sustained at the Sunbelt Indy Carnival, Australia. He underwent three hours of surgery shortly after that and a rod and four screws were inserted into his leg. The two lower screws have been removed, the remaining two screws will be removed at the end of the 1998 season so that he does not have to interrupt next season in order to have that procedure done. He's undergone approximately ten hours of therapy daily in preparation for his return, which comes well ahead of schedule. Christian returned to his car last Tuesday and Wednesday and completed 107 laps during a two-day CART open test at the Mid Ohio sports car course. I'm told he also tested at Mid Ohio yesterday. He can probably tell you more about that once we get underway here. Christian finished fifth in the 1996 PPG Cup standings with 110 points. He made three podium appearances during the season, one of which came at Portland where he finished third. He finished 26th in his only PPG CART World Series appearance this season, the season opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami, presented by Toyota, retiring due to an oil leak after completing 40 of 147 laps. The Bud GI Joe's 200 presented by Texaco Havoline will be broadcast live this Sunday on ESPN beginning at 5 p.m. eastern time. With that we will open it up for questions.

Q. I wish you a welcome back, Christian. A lot of times we don't know how we react to adversity like this. I know you've never experienced anything like this until it happens. Are you a little surprised yourself at the way you've bounced back, both psychologically and physically?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Yes and no. I am because at the end of the day I think it went pretty quick, but at the same time, I think there was a lot of effort from a lot of people, a lot of hard work also since the accident in Australia as soon as I was operated. About eight to ten days later, I started already swimming, and difficult a lot of stuff for the leg. In that sense, I think it went pretty good. I'm back again. I feel very confident. Last week was a little bit harder for me in the car Tuesday, and also Wednesday. But yesterday it went pretty good, very good. I'm very confident for Portland and I'm sure everything's going to go very well there.

Q. Christian, again, I don't know that you've ever been injured to this extent. Have you gained a different appreciation or different outlook on some of your colleagues who have been injured in the past, what thoughts have gone through, talking about your uncle here, too?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Yeah. There's no doubt about that. Not even only my racing colleagues, but I think everyone like in general, especially when I was in a wheelchair for about three weeks because I broke my leg; I broke my right leg. I broke my left foot, so I hardly couldn't walk at the beginning. It just gives you a complete different view of life. I think everything becomes a lot harder than what you're normally used to. I think you like appreciate it a lot more. When you're sitting there and you know that everything is so difficult for you to move around, for you to do things that would normally take you 10, 15 seconds, sometimes like two, three minutes, when you can do them. I think in that sense, it really showed me something completely different, that I hadn't experienced before.

Q. We welcome you to Portland later on this week. I'm concerned about your level of stamina here at Portland. You were quoted in some of the press releases saying that you would have much preferred to be able to come back on an oval as opposed to a road course. Portland is a fairly quick course. With the festival curves, there's an awful lot of braking involved. Are you concerned about being able to go and to last the distance here?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Not really, to be quite honest, because Mid Ohio in my opinion is a much tougher track. Testing went very good there. Like I was really happy, especially with yesterday. So I think that when I go to Portland, I'm not going to say that it's going to be easy by no means. I think it's going to be very difficult, but at least as soon as I arrive in Portland, I know that I'm going to face a track which is a little bit easier than, for example, Mid Ohio is. So that gives me a little bit more confidence. At the same time, I couldn't move my leg, but I have been doing a lot. I think I am pretty fit at the moment. I think it will be able for me to race, like have a very nice weekend over there.

Q. Could you talk, Christian, just a little bit about what we might expect in this Portland race with the course and with the intense competition with these guys?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Something that I think everyone has been seeing lately, I think the CART series this year is very competitive. The last couple of races have shown that it has been like really wild, in a good sense, out there. There's a lot of competition. It's very tough. I think that Portland, definitely we can expect the same type of racing. For example, the last race we had about seven or eight cars running all together the last 20 laps of the race. St. Louis was a very good race, so definitely this season we have had about like a number of races which have really been very, very nice. I'm pretty sure that Portland is going to be exactly the same.

Q. I want to ask Christian, what was the discomfort that you felt at Mid Ohio the first two days, that Tuesday and Wednesday test? How did that change yesterday?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: What I felt basically in the first two days, when I went over the bumps, my foot was hurting a lot. The lower part of my leg also was hurting a lot, probably because I had my screws taken off only three days before I sat in the car. So I think that, like, could have caused all of the pain. After that, I went back home, I stayed there for about four days, and I went back testing yesterday. Yesterday, it went pretty good. Like I hardly didn't feel any pain. I managed to do like what I did in two days testing, I did in one day yesterday. We ran a lot of miles, so I was pretty okay in the car the whole day. I honestly don't feel anything. It really made a difference, the fact that I drove two days, went back home, I managed to stay there, managed to do my swimming, do the usual stuff that I do for my leg. Then I came back up to test again after four days. I think it was very, very good.

Q. The Formula One race up in Montreal last weekend, I was just wondering what you thought, if you did see it, the accident, as opposed to what happened to you?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: What I think is what I have been saying definitely lately. I think, definitely, the Indy cars are a lot stronger than the Formula One cars because they are bigger, heavier. And I'm pretty sure that if he had been in one of our cars, probably that wouldn't have happened with him. At the same time, I have to say that if I was in a Formula One car when I had my accident, probably I wouldn't even be talking to you guys over here because the car was awesome. It really held very, very good, and I think like all the crash tests that we have and the way that CART enforces everyone to build their cars, in my opinion, is very, very good.

Q. Did you see the race?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I didn't see the whole race. I saw parts of it. One of the parts that I saw was exactly when he had the accident.

Q. Christian, could you give a little detail, please, as to what ten hours of therapy is like a day? It seems almost unfathomable to me.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: It's boring and tiring. When I was back in Brazil, I was waking up about like seven o'clock. I would arrive at the club at about eight o'clock. Then I would start one type of physio right in the morning, from about 8 to 9:30, moving the leg up and down, putting a little bit of weight on it so I could try and get all of like the movements that I last back again. Then from about 9:30 to about 11, 11:15, I would swim. After that, I would break for lunch, then I would start about two o'clock in the afternoon. I would have the second physiotherapy from about three to four o'clock, then I would do a couple of stuff like on the bicycle with weights also for my arms. Then after that, we're talking about six o'clock already and it was time to go back home. Basically I was living like the whole day because of the leg. In my opinion, it really paid off, because only after about 65 days, I was back in the car. I'm very happy. I'm even happier now after I drove the car yesterday, because it honestly went a lot better than last week.

Q. What was the original timetable for you to return? Was it like 90 days?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Originally, like the type of break that I have, people say three months to three months and a half. I guess for me, luckily enough, it went a little bit quicker.

Q. Christian, do you see Paul Tracy and Greg Moore the last five races, and foreign drivers have won six of eight this year. Do you see a drop-off in American talent, or is that just coincidence, the number of American drivers compared to the foreign-born drivers in a series?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: No. I think in a way it was just the way the races went. There's no doubt that they have a lot of talent, a lot of other drivers have a lot of talent also. But in my opinion, like, it's very competitive out there. There are a lot of guys that are like knocking on the door every weekend, but they just can't make it. I would like to add to that. At the moment, like apart from being able to -- you have to really drive a very competitive car. You have to do almost a perfect race, but at the same time, the races are so competitive that you have to be a little bit lucky. A little bit lucky the way like when you come in for your stops if everything goes okay, if you don't lose two or three seconds. Because if you come in for a stop and, for example, you lose two or three seconds, that can change the whole race for you. I just think that all the series is very, very competitive.

Q. What measures will you be taking here in Portland to protect the leg when you're not in the car? Last time we saw you in Detroit you were still on crutches. What are the doctor's recommendations about activities outside the car?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Actually, I'm going to see the doctors today. I am probably going to be on crutches still. I think I have to be on crutches another 15, 20 days, something like that. I am going to use like a big sort of cast around my leg that helps me in case I have any other accidents. It's not really because it's going to vibrate or not a lot inside the car; it's only if I eventually have another accident. I can in some way try to not break the leg again at exactly the same place, because that could really cause like some great problems for me. So you will be seeing me on crutches, and you will be seeing like the mechanics help me get into the car. But once I'm in the car, I am pretty comfortable.

Q. Christian, glad to see you back. You're in the car, if something happens, are you able to push yourself out and be able to get out quickly? Secondly, will a relief driver be available in case you get tired?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: No, no other driver is going to be available. That's why I actually tested for three days. I spoke to everyone on the team to make sure that I would really be okay. If I wasn't okay, then obviously I wouldn't even be going for the Portland race. At the same time, if I have to come out of the car, which I hope I don't have to come out of the car very quick, it's a matter of how quick you have to come out of the car. If there's a fire, there's no doubt that I'm going to fly out of the car (laughter). I'll certainly learn how to fly out of the car. Coming out of car, it's not a problem. It's more of a problem if I have to run. Then I guess I'll just have to jump a little bit or limp a little bit. But coming out of the car is actually not a problem for me.

Q. You've been testing at Mid Ohio. Do you think that's a sufficient test to get you set up for Portland? Do you think the courses are that similar?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I actually think that Mid Ohio, in my opinion, is a very good place to go testing because it's tougher than Portland. Physically, it's very, very hard. It's a little bit more bumpy, I would say. Apart from the big straights, you don't have any time for you to rest over there because you're always braking, shifting, turning. It's very hard. One of the reasons I was really happy is that I went to a place where it's the worst case that I could ever expect for me, as soon as I went back in the car. Obviously, if I went testing, for example on an oval, it would be a lot easier for me. We made sure that we didn't do that, especially knowing that I'm going to be on a road course for the next three races.

Q. We all know the CART team had a very great race last year. This seemed to be the stop that Alex really took the baton from Jimmy Vasser and really had a great stretch at the second half of the schedule. Talk about how frustrating that was for you last year. This seemed to be one of your better stretches last year. Kind of assess the popularity of the sport in the Pacific Northwest.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I think there's no doubt that the second part of the season last year was a lot better than the first one. I think I got to know the team a lot more. We were working a lot better. Like the whole team was doing, in my opinion, a lot better than the first I would say six, seven races. I'm pretty confident now that I'm coming back in the car. It's my second year. Although I lost six races, I still think we can have a very good second part of the season. I'm going to try, by all means, to finish in the Top 10, Top 8. I think it's still possible, even though that I lost six or seven races. I lost six races. The first race in Miami I lasted about 15 laps, had to stop. The second race in Australia, I stopped on the first lap. So basically I lost eight races.

Q. I'd like to come back to the timing of your return. Everybody knows that you were willing to come back as soon as possible. I wonder, what made you come back now? Does it have something to do with the fact that your sponsor is presenting this race in Portland also?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: No. I definitely think that Portland is a very important race for us. There's no doubt about that. I would love to be over there, especially because last year I had a very good race over there. I think it was a perfect timing. Since the last race, there was like about 15 days in between one race and this next race. I had a lot of time to go testing. I could actually test for about three days. I had a lot of time to think if I was capable of driving the car. I think we added all of those aspects, like really together, we fought a lot. I think it was perfect timing. The leg felt very well. It was perfect timing for me to go back in the car. I think eventually if I had gone back in the car in between races where I didn't have any time for me to test or eventually if I ran the car only like one day and then I went straight into like the next race, I think it would have been a lot harder for me. The fact that I have this race and then I have two more or three more weeks for the Cleveland race, I think it's just going to be perfect timing for everyone.

Q. Having known some athletes over the years who have broken ankles or legs, when they tried to come back, they were surprised at how difficult it can be, especially when there's screws in the bones involved. What percentage of your former self do you think you'll be this week and then how long will it be before you're back a hundred percent physically and mentally?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Well, I think that in life, no matter how bad your experiences, you're always learning some new things. So hopefully out of my I would say bad experience, I hope I learned a lot of new things. I hope that I also maybe developed some other ways of thinking, approach to motor racing, to everything that I have done up to date. Eventually, apart from my leg problem, I can come back as a much stronger driver than I was before. I'm really looking forward, I'm very confident. I think that like we ran for three days, which was pretty good. A lot of people sometimes talk to me as if I'm going straight to Portland, sitting in the car, driving the first time. It's not going to be I think that strange in a sense, because we did a lot of testing. I feel very, very comfortable in the car. I think it's going to be harder for me in the race because races are very long, and obviously both of my legs, because I can't walk a lot, are not strong enough. My arms are very strong, but I think my legs are not strong enough. I think that the race is going to be very hard, but I don't expect like the qualifying and practice to be that difficult. I think it's going to be a little bit harder than usual, but it's not going to be as bad, for example, like when I started the race.

Q. Christian, how are you going to spend your time between Portland and the Cleveland race? You've got more time off, more therapy, more testing? How you going to do that?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: The first week I'm going to go back to Brazil. Sorry, the first week I'm going to go back home. I'm going to stay in Miami I think for about six days, something like that, and then probably the beginning of the following week we're testing again; I'm testing for two days. Then right after I finish testing, I'm going back to Brazil. I'm going to spend another week or so down in Brazil, continuing all of the normal stuff that I have been doing, like the stretching, moving the leg here and there, trying to get all of the movements back, trying to build my leg back again. Then I'll be back for the following race. I think the fact that there's a long break in between one race and the other, it's going to be very good for me because I can honestly notice a difference. Like every two or three days, I can really notice a difference on my leg.

Q. Christian, one other thing. We talk about testing. Did you find any differences in the car when you sat behind it at Mid Ohio than you did before preseason testing? I know it's a work in progress, and it is a new chassis. If you could talk a little bit about that, that might be interesting.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Before preseason testing, compared to Mid Ohio, I think there's a big difference. Like when we started running this year, we had a lot of problems. We basically hardly could run. Like before Miami, I think I had done only about 350 miles. Then we went straight into the first race. At the moment, I think that the car is at a level a lot more advanced than it was like in the beginning of the year. I think definitely it's going to make my job a lot easier. I think both drivers have been doing like a very good job, and I think that the car is very competitive. I'm really looking forward for the second half of the season.

Q. Did you use Michael's baseline setup when you got in the car? Was it Roberto's?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: We used Michael's basic setup from when he ran in Mid Ohio about 30, 35 days ago, because he was testing there. We actually tested there about three times already I think this year.

Q. I'm interested in your emotions or maybe the frustration of watching your teammate sitting second in points, and you wouldn't be worth your salt as a race car driver if you didn't think you were at least as good if not better than your teammate. How frustrating is it to be taken out of those races and you don't even have the opportunity to be up there with the leaders? You could be big time in this fight.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I think that's the way it goes. There's not a lot to say. To be quite honest with you, I'm very happy that I'm here and able to talk to you, and that everything went okay, that I'll be back in the car racing this weekend. I think considering the accident I had down in Surfers, things could have gone a lot worse. I can't by no means think in a negative way saying I lost everything. Okay, maybe I lost a couple of races, but maybe at the same time I gained a lot of other stuff back to me, and I'm a healthy person. I know that my leg is going to be like 100 percent, like I won't have a problem. In that sense, I am very happy. In my opinion, that's ten times more important than obviously winning the Championship. Making sure that you're going to be a healthy person, making sure that you are going to have like a normal life again. I'm very happy for that. At the moment the only thing I can do is go out there and try, by all means, to win that first race still in the next eight, nine races to come, and try to help Michael with a couple of points also. If I can steal a lot of points from the other guys and make sure that they won't take them, that's going to make Michael's life a little bit easier. There's no doubt that I am going to do that.

Q. Christian, is the team doing anything special to the car to make it easier for you to drive?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Yes. The team actually changed the way the three pedals are basically set up. My brake pedal is a little bit smaller than usual to give me more space in the car. It moved a little bit to the left. My throttle pedal, compared to what I usually run, is further down a little bit so I can stretch my leg a little bit more. That won't give me a bad time, that won't make it hard for me on the leg. We actually changed a couple of things. Honestly, we didn't have to change a lot. From the way upwards, like my real sitting position, and the way my arms go on the steering wheel, I think everything is exactly the same as before.

Q. Christian, two things. You mentioned they're going to fit you with a cast for Portland. Did they do that at Mid Ohio when you tested? At Mid Ohio, talk a little bit about what it was like to get back in the car. Emotionally did you change, maybe be a little skittish, change anything from what you usually do?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Everything I ran in Mid Ohio is going to be exactly the same setup as I'm going to run for the next race. So I know exactly everything that's going on and I know it's not going to be a problem for me to drive. At the same time, when I hopped in the car at Mid Ohio the first day, it just seemed I went back to Brazil for about two months. I was on big holidays, let's put it this way. And then I just came back over here, started driving again. After about ten laps, everything was going okay. Obviously, I had to learn how to brake. I can't brake with my leg that I broke. I have to change a little bit the way I drive, but after about I would say like at the end of the first morning, everything was going like pretty smooth. I was already pretty happy in the car. The first day was the worst day. I had a lot of pain. Then the second day I had less pain. Yesterday I had even less pain.

Q. Did they put you in that temporary cast that you're talking about they're going to do for Portland, too?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Yes. As I said before, like I drove exactly the way I am going to drive in Portland, to make sure that I have all the movements I need, to make sure that as soon as I hop in the car, I can try and be very competitive.

MODERATOR: It's a brace, as opposed to a temporary cast with plaster.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: It's a big I would say carbon brace that goes from the knee to the ankle, then there's two screws on the ankle. It doesn't go inside the leg, nothing like that. It goes together with like a foot piece, and it makes my foot move as soon as I have to step on it.

Q. Christian, I know you said you were going to the doctor this afternoon. What kind of a prognosis have been given in terms of time and when you'll be able to walk normally, really sort of feel normal?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I think going back to a normal life is going to be maybe the end of July, beginning of August, like as far as I can run, I can jump, do like whatever I want. Apart from that, while I don't have a normal life, I just try to go around on my crutches and try to make sure I have a life as normal as possible within like the situation right now. But, honestly, it has been very good. Like the only thing I can say, which was also very good, is after the accident, after like the first week, I didn't really feel any pain on my leg, which was very, very good. Like if I stay talking to you for about two hours, if we go out to eat, something like that, there's never any pain on my leg. It only gets a little bit bigger or smaller depending if I go to a place where it's too cold or if it's raining or not. But apart from that, it has been really fine.

Q. Have you retired that wheelchair?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Yes, I have retired it a long time ago. The wheelchair helped me a lot, but it's not really funny to stay on a wheelchair the whole day. It's very difficult. As soon as I could start walking, as soon as I could start stepping with my left foot, basically was the first thing I did. I just parked my wheelchair and now I guess that it's very well parked on the corner of my room and probably I won't see it again. I hope so.

Q. Christian, I'm wondering what the doctors have said to you? I guess racing with a metal shaft in your leg, there's some danger if you were to have another accident. Did they sit down and give you like a worst-case scenario or warning or, "You might want to consider this before you get back in a car." Have they talked about that?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: There's no doubt they talked to me a lot about that. I guess if I was going to wait to be 100 percent, I basically had to wait for one year to race. But a lot of drivers do that. They actually race with pins, rods, everything inside them. It's like within the problems I have, it's a pretty normal situation. I think the only thing you have to make sure, one stage you really have to draw the line to see if you can hop back into the car, if you can drive like the car well enough. I think I can do that. I honestly consider myself ready to go back in the car. I understand at the same time if I have another accident, there is that extra risk factor that if I hit exactly the same way or pretty much in a similar way, I could create a lot of damage to my leg.

Q. Christian, have you reviewed your accident, looked at film of it? Second, have you talked to somebody like Zampedri that's kind of gone through the same thing you have?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I actually saw my accident a couple of times, just to make sure what happened of everything that you can see. I haven't talked to Alex. I have talked to a couple of other drivers, especially people I would say maybe down in Brazil that come from there that had a couple of accidents.

Q. Nelson?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: No, not actually him. Some other drivers that like drive lower formula classes. I have spoken to them, I have spoken to people that race bikes and everything, just to make sure how it is, like when you have a rod inside, when you have a screw inside. Obviously, based on their experience, which they had before mine, they can always try to teach me something, and I could be, I would say, ready a lot easier than if I had to learn everything by myself.

T.E. McHALE: At this point we'll take one more question for Christian and let him go. One last question for Christian from anyone?

Q. Christian, the last 40 minutes, I've kind of detected a theme here, which is a lot of young race drivers live, eat, breathe racing. However, at a pretty young age you seem to have found a balance. Other things in life are very important to you. Where does that come from? Does that come from your uncle? From your family?

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: I don't know. That's a good question. I think it may be from my family in general, like the way they taught me like when I was a kid. Honestly, at the moment, I put all my efforts into motor racing. I just try to get my job done like the best way as possible. But at the same time, as I said before, like there are some things in life which no matter how much money or no matter how much influence you have, that can buy you or that can eventually get you. One of those things is health. As I said before, like I'm really happy to be healthy. I'm really happy to be 100 percent back again. Because of the accident I had, like things could have gone a lot worse with me, and maybe I would never be able to drive a racing car again. As far as I can put all my efforts into the program, I will always do that, but at the same time, I think family is very important. Being a healthy person also is really important, and like I would never trade that for racing.

T.E. McHALE: With that, I think we'll wrap up for today. We want to thank Christian for being with us today and wish him the best of luck in this weekend's Budweiser GI Joe's 200 presented by Texaco Havoline at Portland International Raceway. Thanks to all of you for being with us today and we'll talk to you again next week.

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