By Amy Konrath
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines:
1. Matos comfortable at home
2. Memory of Senna prominent in drivers’ mind
3. Rice joins Panther Racing for Indy 500
4. INDYCAR drivers get the beat
5. Jakes helps Orlando reach out to potential visitors
6. Firestone Indy Lights race in Iowa lands sponsor
1. Matos comfortable at home: Yes, Raphael Matos understands, you can go home. The native Belo Horizonte (the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, about 450 miles from the Anhembi circuit) is looking forward to standing on the podium May 1 with the green and yellow Brazilian flag draped over his shoulder.
In another context, the third-year IZOD IndyCar Series driver is comfortable with his old/new home at AFS Racing. Matos won the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights championship in an AFS Racing car, and reunited with owner Gary Peterson just before the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., to drive the No. 17 entry in the team’s inaugural standalone race.
“Gary and (his wife) Tammy are wonderful people and as I’ve told him several times he’s saved my career two times,” said Matos, who competed with two iterations of Jay Penske/Steve Luczo/Gil de Ferran racing operations the previous two seasons. “It’s certainly a place that I can have a long-term career.
“The chemistry of the team is great. I feel a lot of support from the engineers, mechanics and (GM) Neil Micklewright.”
Matos delivered a seventh place on the St. Petersburg street course, and is 12th in the championship standings heading into the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle. AFS Racing, which had competed in Firestone Indy Lights since Peterson was a driver, ran two IZOD IndyCar Series races in 2010 through an association with Andretti Autosport.
“Finishing seventh in the first race when we did the shakedown of the car on Friday is not bad,” said Matos, the 2009 IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year. “Having the program come late to the season, without going to the Open Test (10 days before the opening event) was tough. But it’s that support from everyone, the chemistry that got us through. I know that I can give insight to the engineers and help them with the development of the car for this track.”
Matos, whose Automatic Fire Sprinklers Inc. car carries associate sponsorship from Nova Schin (a popular Brazilian pilsner), was out of a ride in December. Now he’s the foundation of a team that is seeking to expand its imprint in the highly competitive series.
“It only gives me confidence,” said Matos, who recorded one of his four top-10 finishes in 2010 on the São Paulo circuit last year with a fourth (started 12th). “I put a lot of pressure on myself as a driver, and having support from Gary and the sponsors is what I’m looking at.
“(Peterson is) committed to this program, very passionate about this sport and loves his team. I expect big things out of this team. Obviously, we need to get the right partners and we need track time.”
2. Memory of Senna prominent in drivers’ mind: Two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was one of the many drivers who paid his respects to Ayrton Senna, the legendary Brazilian racing champion, who is buried in São Paulo’s Morumbi Cemetery.
“Popped out to see Senna’s grave,” Dixon wrote on Twitter. “Very quiet in a busy city. What a legend!”
Senna remains a hero to many drivers from around the world but no place more than in his home country of Brazil. The fact that the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle occurs on the 17th anniversary of his passing (May 1) provides extra motivation to the five Brazilian drivers in the field.
“It would be an extremely important win to me because he was a hero not only to me, but for all of Brazil,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. “(Winning on Sunday) would be a memorable day for me not only to win here in Brazil, but on a very special day to many Brazilians. I am going to do everything I can to make sure that can happen.”
Like Castroneves, Ana Beatriz considers Senna her hero, even though she had only begun to race go-karts a few months before his death.
“Senna means a lot to me,” said Beatriz, who like Senna is a native of São Paulo. “He is still a big reference when I think about the sport. We can still watch his races on video and we can see his determination and focus when he raced. He’s still a big hero in Brazil and everyone remembers the anniversary of his death and his birthday. Racing on May 1 and maybe winning the race in Brazil will be the perfect way to say thank you to him for all he did for us. ”
Vitor Meira will carry a very personal tribute to Senna during the race weekend. Meira had his helmet painter Art Rotondo paint a mural of Senna’s racing accomplishments on the back of the helmet he will use in the race.
“I remember May 1, 1994, when he unfortunately passed away,” Meira said. “It’s just a way to say he’s still in our minds. I put him on my helmet and wanted to do something individually out of respect to what he meant to me.”
3. Rice joins Panther Racing for Indy 500: Panther Racing rookie JR Hildebrand will have an Indianapolis 500 champion as a teammate for the 100th anniversary race on May 29.
The team announced that 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice will drive the No. 44 entry. A Panther Racing driver has finished runner-up in three consecutive Indy 500s (2008 with Vitor Meira and in 2009, 2010 with Dan Wheldon).
“I’m pumped to be at Panther, and the intention is that we’ll be able to run more than Indy, but this is the first step and I’m here to help JR and help the team,” said Rice, who last competed in the ‘500’ in 2008 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. “The whole key for me coming back is that I wanted to be in competitive equipment and have a chance to win. I didn’t want to come back to Indy just to pound out laps, and given how competitive the series has become that’s how it has to be.
“I’ve had offers in the past that didn’t work out for different reasons, and I wasn’t coming back and driving unless I had the chance to run up front. That’s always been my goal. Panther is a team that can win the race so when I had the opportunity I couldn’t say no.”
Rice has made IZOD IndyCar Series starts, with three victories and five pole positions. He finished a career-high third in the championship in 2004.
“Buddy and I have talked for years about him joining the team and never had an opportunity that aligned itself, so when this came about to run a second car at the Speedway he was high on our list and he was excited about being a part of Panther,” CEO John Barnes said. “He’s going to make a huge impact on JR and his development, and from the time we decided Hildebrand was the future of our team we wanted to bring along a mentor and somebody that could help our entire team.
“When the opportunity came along with Buddy, it was a no-brainer for us. We hope this isn’t a one-and-done thing; we want Buddy for more races this season, and we feel this opportunity is a win-win for all of us.”
Hildebrand had reached out to Rice on more than one occasion earlier in the season about helping the team in some capacity.
“I’m super excited to have Buddy on board,” said Hildebrand. “Having him as a teammate at Indy is the best-case scenario; he’s a guy that for his accomplishments and his attitude is a guy I’ve always admired and thought that he took things very seriously and has been known to be a good teammate.
“All those things for me personally make it even more exciting to have him on board with Panther. It will really hit when we actually show up to Indianapolis. I definitely never would have thought when I was young that I’d have an opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500. To be in a position with a team that’s capable of winning at Indy and with a teammate that’s done it before, it’s just a crazy circumstance when you really think about it and I’m really looking forward to the month of May.”
Hildebrand is the current leader in the IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year standings and will become the first rookie to start in the Indy 500 for Panther since Tomas Enge in 2005.
“I own my own go-kart team and I like helping out young drivers and seeing them develop,” Rice said. “For me to deal with JR, we have some mutual friends and my reputation as a teammate has been good, so I’m excited about it and I like the challenge. I’ve been in JR’s shoes before and I feel like I have a lot to offer especially because he’s a kid who wants to learn and I feel like I have some insight and it will be great to help him out and be a part of Panther.”
Sponsorship details for Rice’s No. 44 car will be announced at a later date.
4. INDYCAR drivers get the beat: They quickly got the rhythm of the dance and drums, and subsequently were invited to participate in one of the parades of Carnival in 2012.
“That would be a lot of fun,” said Raphael Matos, who joined Helio Castroneves, Oriol Servia and E.J. Viso at the samba school Vai-Vai (loose translation: go and just do it) in São Paulo.
Participants at samba schools — a gathering spot, social club and community outreach program rolled into one — in many Brazilian cities plan their theme for Carnival, make costumes and their float, plan and practice the music and dance, etc., for more than nine months. Come Carnival time (in 2012 it’s late March), samba schools compete for various prizes and trophies in the multitude of parades that take place in the Anhembi Sambadrome that is part of the circuit for the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle.
“I had a little experience playing drums in Brazil a long time ago, and I enjoyed it much to be next to the people who are professionals teaching the samba,” Matos said. “It was great to join some of the tradition in Brazil.”
In another part of the city, Ana Beatriz visited the nation’s soccer museum and the Assistance Association for Disabled Children as part of Racing For Kids. AACD is the largest association in Brazil supporting physically disabled children.
5. Jakes helps Orlando reach out to potential visitors: Visit Orlando is the primary sponsor on the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing car of James Jakes for the race on the streets of São Paulo.
It’s the organization’s first-ever sports sponsorship and is part of Visit Orlando’s global marketing campaign, “Orlando Makes Me Smile,” which recently launched in Brazil.
“James is an outstanding athlete and, as an Orlando resident, we’re honored to have him as an Orlando ambassador on this worldwide sporting stage with millions of global fans and viewers,” said Gary Sain, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “It’s also fitting that he is a native of the UK, one of Orlando’s long-standing top international visitor markets, racing in Brazil, one of Orlando’s fastest growing visitor markets.”
6. Firestone Indy Lights race in Iowa lands sponsor: Sukup Manufacturing Co., will serve as the title sponsor of Iowa Speedway’s Firestone Indy Lights race on Saturday, June 25.
The Sukup 100 will be held prior to the Iowa Corn Indy 250 IZOD IndyCar race, as part of an action-packed weekend fueled by Iowa’s agricultural industry.
“Sponsoring the Sukup 100 Firestone Indy Lights race provides a great opportunity to connect with our current and potential customers as we join together to cheer our favorite drivers — and the ethanol industry — on to victory lane,” said Sukup Manufacturing Co., CFO Steve Sukup.
Sukup Manufacturing Co., is a family-owned grain storage, drying and handling equipment manufacturer located in Sheffield, Iowa. Sukup has been providing top-quality products to agricultural producers since 1963.
“Agriculture is big business to the state of Iowa, and Iowa Speedway is no exception,” said Chuck Spicer, vice president of Sales and Marketing at Iowa Speedway. “We are delighted to welcome Sukup Manufacturing Co., as a new official partner.”
Sukup believes the partnership is a win-win for Iowa’s corn growers, ethanol industry and racing fans.
“IndyCar and Iowa Speedway are leaving the naysayers in the dust and showing the world what ethanol can do. The use of ethanol lessens our dependence on foreign oil and supports our neighbors — Iowa’s corn growers,” said Sukup. “It also makes for an exciting race series.”
The next IZOD IndyCar Series event is the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle on May 1 on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The race will be televised live at noon (ET) by VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. The next Firestone Indy Lights race is Firestone Freedom 100 on May 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It will be televised live by VERSUS.