Indy 500 champ not ready to fade away

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gil de Ferran still enjoys the sensation he gets from driving a race car: his hands gripping the wheel, the air whipping across the top of his helmet.

He still loves the idea of pushing his machine -- and himself -- to the limit, straddling the line between triumph and disaster as the car slides into the corner.

Even though he's had two serious crashes in the last nine months and his resume is largely complete after winning the Indianapolis 500, de Ferran isn't ready to fade away just yet.

"I enjoy challenging myself," the Brazilian said Monday, returning to the track less than 24 hours after the biggest win of his career. "I still get a thrill out of it. As long as I feel that, my life as a race car driver will go on."

If de Ferran chose to step away from the sport after this season -- as some have speculated -- no one would blame him.

Last September, he sustained a concussion and fractured his left wrist in a crash at Chicago, causing him to miss the final race of the 2002 season.

In March, de Ferran got another concussion and fractures in his neck and lower back when he wrecked at Phoenix. He needed six weeks to recuperate, missing a race in Japan.

On the homefront, de Ferran has a wife and two young children who certainly want him to reach the end of his career in one piece. Professionally, his goals have largely been met with two series championships in CART and, now, a victory at the Brickyard.

Even so, de Ferran didn't sound like a guy who's pondering retirement.

"It doesn't come from my head, it comes from my heart," he said. "For me, it's not about the history books. It's me against me. I want to see how far I can go."

He went all the way to Victory Lane on Sunday, holding off teammate and two-time defending champion Helio Castroneves in the third-closest finish in Indy history -- about five car lengths.

After a whirlwind night celebrating the greatest moment of his career, de Ferran returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the usual round of publicity photographs at the start-finish line.

The Penske Racing car was pushed slowly into place while de Ferran's 6-year-old son, Luke, handled the steering duties. Then it was time to say "Cheese" a few hundred times, making sure all the sponsorship commitments were met.

"I've hardly had time to take it all in and realize what's going on," de Ferran said. "I'm still sort of floating in the air. I've not had a chance to sit down and say, 'Oh my God, it really happened.' I probably will in a few days."

A renaissance man of sorts, de Ferran didn't get into racing full-time until age 19, dropping out of the Brazilian college where he studied mechanical engineering.

His dream was to race in Formula One, where he would have followed in the footsteps of countrymen Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. De Ferran tested for a couple of teams in the early '90s, but never landed a ride.

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