Fittipaldi to make debut in Winston Cup this week
Wednesday, November 6, 2002
A go-karting accident put Christian Fittipaldi's stock-car racing career on the fast track.
The Brazilian star of the CART series will make his Winston Cup debut this week at Phoenix International Speedway because Jerry Nadeau was hurt in a wreck.
Fittipaldi wasn't supposed to trade in the keys to his open-wheel racer for a set to a stock car until next season. But when Nadeau injured his ribs Oct. 17, Petty Enterprises decided to speed up Fittipaldi's move.
He'll be behind the wheel of the No. 44 Dodge that Nadeau had been driving.
"We struggled with it because we really didn't want to run Christian this year," Kyle Petty said. "We really wanted to save our stuff and work toward next year."
But the 31-year-old Fittipaldi, nephew of former Formula One champion and 1989 Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, persuaded Petty to let him race at Phoenix.
Because Fittipaldi had raced open-wheel cars around the 1-mile oval before, he believes it's a good place to start his NASCAR career. He'll try to qualify Friday, less than a week after he finished seventh in the CART race at California Speedway.
"It's going to be different, a lot different," Fittipaldi said.
Crashing the Busch Series
It won't be Fittipaldi's first time in a stock car -- he finished 39th after crashing in a Busch series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November -- and he's tested for the Pettys this season, most recently last week at Phoenix.
"I am getting a feel for these cars, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they are like with 42 others on the track with you at the same time," Fittipaldi said.
The Pettys, trying to rebuild their family organization, announced plans in August to bring Fittipaldi aboard. They want him to run a mix of Winston Cup, Busch series and ARCA races next year, then put him in a Cup car full time in 2004.
The Pettys see it as a no-lose situation. By putting a well-recognized name in their cars, they'll be broadening their business outside the traditional NASCAR circles.
"People know our names in this country," Petty said. "People know Fittipaldi in Europe, people know Fittipaldi in South America."
Fittipaldi didn't even get interested in NASCAR until last year, when he attended the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Before then, he was like most open-wheel drivers who look down on the fender-equipped, heavy stock cars.
But with a push in popularity and money to NASCAR, and the declining state of the CART series, Fittipaldi left Bristol more than impressed.
"I realized that if you want to do it seriously, you need to do it at a prime time in your career," Fittipaldi said.
He's not the only one. Max Papis and Jimmy Vasser, two open-wheel stars, recently attended NASCAR races trying to meet potential owners and discuss possible moves to stock cars.
None is expected to have an easy transition, which is why Petty is stressing that Fittipaldi is looking to learn -- not necessarily win -- at Phoenix.
"Sometimes you come and you run this series and you get caught up in the racing and you forget about the learning phase," Petty said.