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Gil De Farran Closeup - 1995 Pennzoil Indy 500 Racing Team


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As accomplished off the race track as he was on it, Gil de Ferran was a popular choice for "rookie of the year" at the end of the 1995 IndyCar season. The Pennzoil driver won his title in point competition with one of the circuit's best group of rookies in many a year, and contributing to his success was his first IndyCar win (Laguna Seca) and first pole position (Cleveland), as well as five top-10 finishes.

Meanwhile, the veteran of European Formula 3000 racing overcame a lack of knowledge about him on this side of the Atlantic in a big way. He was elected to the Auto Racing All American second team by the 500-member American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association to cap off his outstanding rookie season in Indy cars.

Largely unknown to auto racing fans in the United States when he was picked to drive the Pennzoil car by owner Jim Hall, de Ferran quickly showed his promise by capturing the provisional pole for the season's first race, the Miami Grand Prix, on the first day he drove the Pennzoil car competitively in March, 1995. He wound up starting the race in fourth position and dropped out with mechanical trouble, then suffered through a series of frustrating misfortunes before his first season turned around.

Success in his rookie year follows a pattern in de Ferran's career. He came to the Pennzoil IndyCar team with an impressive record to match his aggressive march through a succession of racing series. In his last assignment, European formula 3000, he drove for Jackie Stewart's team to the doorstep of the championship. That seemed to follow a pattern for the young Brazilian.

As a 5-year-old in Sao Paolo, Brazil, he loved to drive go-karts, supervised by his father. He would wheel his own kart around empty parking lots for fun every chance he got. He drove a detuned kart that had been given to his father by a friend. The boy crashed, rolled it over, caught it on fire, drove it underneath parked cars, did many of the things that terrorize parents, but his f amily encouraged him, because he used good sense and observed safety practices. He was no less brave on a bicycle, scraping skin off both elbows constantly. His boyhood experiences led up to his first important racing decision as a 14-year-old.

His parents offered De Ferran a racing kart if he would take and pass a difficult entrance exam to a preferred high school. De Ferran calculated his odds against pulling it off at 20-to-1, but he accepted the challenge and passed the test. He then had to keep his grades up to go kart racing. In his rookie season, 1982, he finished 3rd in the junior 125 cc class. The next year he was class B 125 cc champion. By 1984 he had finished 2nd in the national 100 cc class A championship and 3rd in 125 cc A karting in Sao Paolo. He was ready for a new challenge.

Dropping out of the 1984 Sao Paolo series with three races to go, De Ferran studied for the difficult four-day admission test to Sao Paolo University to study mechanical engineering. Accepted into the university, he also raised the level of his racing to Brazil's formula Ford championship series. He finished 12th in the championship race in 1985, 7th in 1986 with one win and was champion in 1987 with five wins.

In 1988 De Ferran took another calculated gamble. He dropped out of college and went to Europe to hone his skills as a race driver. Determined to find out if he had the talent to make it in internatinal motor racing, he raised $50,000 from friends and sponsors and moved to England.

The move was a shock to the system. The team he could afford to join was having problems that hampered his performance. The car wasn't very well prepared. De Ferran had to adjust to a lower standard of living. He had no family nearby to turn to. He had no friends. He was homesick and lonely.

"I asked myself what I was doing there, what I really wanted in life, he said. "I decided that motor racing was what I really wanted. Going through Hell that year made me come out a stronger person, taught me not to take things lighty."

At the end of that season De Ferran scraped together enough money to get into a formula 3 race, qualified on the pole for his class (B) and carried on a classic duel with David Brabham before finishing 2nd. Rick Gorne of Reynard saw his performance and recruited De Ferran for the company's formula Ford 1600 team. In 1989 De Ferran finished 3rd in both of England's formula Ford series with four wins in each and the most pole positions.

The victories started to come for him, but so did the economic recession. Gorne introduced De Ferran to the Paul Stewart team, operated by Jackie Stewart, and De Ferran was invited to a tryout at Donington Park. He broke the track record and was signed. De Ferran won two races in 1990 and finished 3rd in two series championships, but heading into 1991 the lack of sponsorship resulted in Stewart and his Brazilian driver parting company.

De Ferran was picked up by the Reynard R&D team to drive in formula 3, where he scored three wins and finished 3rd in points. Back he went to Jackie Stewart in 1992, and he won seven r aces on the way to the British formula 3 title. His championship earned De Ferran his first test in a formula 1 car. Moving up to formula 3000 in 1993, he won at Silverstone and wound up 4th in points with a pole position and one track record. Another formula 1 team, Footwork, invited him to a postseason test.

Finances wouldn't allow him to accept a formula 1 ride; so De Ferran returned for one more season with the Paul Stewart team, 1994. He was tied for the lead in points going into the last race at Magny Cours, France, when another driver ran into him early in the race, knocking his car out and ruining De Ferran's championship bid. He finished 3rd in points.

Meanwhile, the Paris-born Brazilian had already been married in England, to Angela Buckland of the Motoring News publishing family, and settled in a home in Surrey. Formula 1 had been a goal, but another key opportunity presented itself. A Reynard factory rep in a telephone conversation with Jim Hall learned there might be a chance for De Ferran to test the Pennzoil Special. As Hall's regular driver, Teo Fabi, was unavailable for a test in midsummer, the Reynard executive put the two of them together, and a deal was made.

That time in the car turned out to be a tryout, although no offer was made until the season ended. By then, Fabi was on the way out, and De Ferran was willing to put aside his formula 1 ambitions for a chance to move up in class to Indy car racing.

De Ferran was born in Paris and taken to Brazil at an early age. Consequently, his command of French he describes as "basic." In addition to a nearly lifelong study of English, he spent three months as an exchange student with a farm family in Mount Hope, Wisconsin, and attended an American high school while he was there.

He's a voracious reader, devouring books from motor racing to mysteries, and he is a self-described "cinema nut." Favorite actors include Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Bridget Fonda and Winona Rider. His musical taste is eclectic, ranging from classical (Beethoven's 5th Symphony is a favorite) to pop, rock and the up-tempo tunes of his homeland. He claims to like Bossanova but not to understand it well.

On a serious note, De Ferran is a student of world affairs. He subscribes to a Brazilian business magazine (Exame) to keep in touch at home and avidly follows the news. Sports events are a fascination. One videotape of a Carl Lewis victory in the 100 meters still gets his attention, because Lewis got a bad start and won on determination. Motor sports are his favorites, because they combine the thrill of competition with the "motorhead" in him, De Ferran said. His racing heroes are Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nelson Piquet, the late Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Rick Mears.