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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Life after Indy cars

by Gordon Kirby
Ten years ago Cristiano da Matta and Bruno Junqueira were approaching the zenith of their careers. Da Matta joined Newman/Haas in 2001 and he and Junqueira finished one-two in CART's 2002 championship with da Matta driving one of Newman/Haas's Lola-Toyotas and Junqueira aboard one of Chip Ganassi's similar Toyota-powered Lolas.

Da Matta went on to race in F1 with Toyota for a couple of years while Junqueira replaced him at Newman/Haas and finished second again in the 2003 and '04 Champ Car championships. But the following year Junquiera was seriously injured at Indanapolis while da Matta suffered even more serious head injuries in 2006 after colliding with a deer while testing at Elkhart Lake.

Old friends from the same city--Belo Horizonte in Brazil--da Matta and Junquiera know each other from their youthful go-karting days. Both worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and re-establish themselves in their chosen sport, sometimes sharing mountain bike training rides and this year da Matta and Junquiera find themselves recreated as ALMS teammates in Paul Gentilozzi's JaguarRSR team.

"We've known each other for a long, long time going back to when we raced go karts in the early nineties," da Matta remarks. "We've known each other well and raced together in Brazil and in Formula 3 in Europe, then over here in Indy cars. We know each other well and this is the first time I've shared the car with somebody so it's great to share the car with Bruno because we understand each other very well. He can say a bunch of things to me and I know what he's talking about and that's good because I think the connection between the drivers is very important in long-distance racing. So that's one of a bunch of reasons I'm enjoying racing for Jaguar in the ALMS."

© Gary Gold
Junqueira echoed da Matta's comments about their friendship and professional respect for each other.

"Cristiano and me are friends, apart from racing, since we were very young," Bruno says. "My wife and his wife are friends and we see each other for dinner sometimes and we go biking together. So it's great to have a friend and a teammate, a guy I respect as one of the best drivers I've raced against.

"He's a great driver. We finished one-two in the championship in 2002 and I never had an incident or a problem with Cristiano. You see guys fighting for the championship and how bad it gets sometimes and Cristiano and I never had any of that. We've raced against each other a lot of times and it's always been good clean, hard racing. So to have him as a teammate is great."

Back in 2002 da Matta won seven races and Junqueira won twice while five other teams and seven more drivers--Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier, Kenny Brack, Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Mario Dominguez--won races with Toyota, Honda and Ford/Cosworth engines.

"It was a great series," da Matta warmly recalls. "We went to a lot of great tracks and there were a lot of strong teams and drivers and manufacturers. It was really strong and I'm proud to have won a championship there when it was still strong and to have done it with a great team--Newman/Haas. It was a great time for me and a tremendous pleasure to work with Newman/Haas. Without doubt those years were the highlight of my racing career."

But those were the years when CART was beginning to implode. Penske deserted CART for the IRL in 2002 and the following year after Honda and Toyota pulled out of CART and switched to the IRL, so too did Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Rahal-Letterman make the move. With CART heading into bankruptcy to be replaced by the ill-starred Champ Car organization, da Matta decided to backtrack on an offer he had rejected to go Formula One with Toyota.

"Before I made the decision to go F1 I had decided I was going to stay in CART with Newman/Haas," da Matta says. "I liked F1, but I had such a good thing going in CART and enjoyed the whole thing--the team, the tracks, the places we went to and the competition, which was really strong. So I decided I was staying. Despite a lot of people advising me to go to F1 I said, 'I'm staying. I'm not going to go.'

© Gary Gold
"But then about two months after I made that decision all the manufacturers pulled out of CART. So I thought about it again and that's when I decided I better take this opportunity in F1. You know, F1 was very healthy and everyone was asking, 'What's going to happen to Champ Car?'."

So da Matta spent two frustrating years in F1 with Toyota's struggling team. In 2003 he snared a pair of sixths and finished tenth in the world championship with ten points, four more than his experienced teammate Olivier Panis. In his second year da Matta's best day came at Monaco where he finished sixth but before the end of the year he lost his ride and returned to Champ Car in 2005, driving for PKV Racing with Jimmy Vasser. He won at Portland in '05 and moved to RuSport for '06, enjoying his best race of the year at San Jose where he finshed second before running into that deer while testing at Elkhart Lake.

Meanwhile, following da Matta's decision to try F1 with Toyota in 2003 he was replaced at Newman/Haas by Junqueira. Bruno finished second to Paul Tracy in the '03 Champ Car series, winning two races, and was second again for the third year in a row in '04 to teammate Sebastien Bourdais. In 2005 he started the year strong, winning in Monterrey, Mexico and taking the championship lead prior to going to Indianapolis. Bruno qualified on the pole at the Speedway with Ganassi in 2002 and ran well in the Indy 500 in '04 with Newman/Haas. He was confident he had a contending car in '05 and after qualifying on the fourth row Junqueira moved quickly into the top five and settled into a pace, conserving fuel well within range of the leaders.

"My car was perfect for the race," Bruno says. "In three or four laps I was in the top five and then running in the top five and saving fuel. I went two laps longer than everybody so I led the race for two laps. Then I did my pitstop and I was running fourth or fifth. I was running just behind Dan Wheldon, who ended up winning the race, and I think I had the car to win the race with Newman/Haas that year. In 2004 I could have won with a little bit of luck or different strategy. But in 2005 the car was good. We had the car to win."

Junqueira was looking good until lap 77 when the wayward A.J. Foyt IV ran into him as Bruno tried to lap him. Young Foyt escaped from the collision with minimal damage but Bruno's car hit the wall hard and he broke his back in two places. Famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammell repaired Junqueira's broken back.

"I broke the twelfth thorax vertebra and the first lumbar vertebra and dislocated the vertebra," Bruno explains. "So I was very lucky not to damage my spinal chord. Dr. Trammell had to take some bone from my ribs and fix those two vertebrae. He fused half of my back--seven vertebrae from T-9 to L-3. He put a lot of screws in to hold them in the right position. So it was a big surgery, very precise. They had to open my whole back and it was a slow recovery.

"I did three and a half months of physiotherapy every day to start getting the movement back. First there was no movement. Then I started to get the movement back. Then I started to go to physiotherapy twice a week to get the strength back. For three and a half months I couldn't do much and then I started to recover. It took seven or eight months until I was fully recovered. Then it took a few more months to get in shape to be ready to drive the car."

Junqueira returned to action with Newman/Haas in 2006 and started the year well, qualifying in the top four at the first five races and taking the pole in Portland.

"2006 was a very difficult year because everyone wanted to see if I was the same driver I was before the accident," Bruno says. "We had a lot of problems that year that were uncommon for Newman/Haas. I started Portland on the pole and A.J. Allmendinger was starting second and they said he didn't start very well. So they put out the yellow flag and told A.J. to stay closer to me. On the restart A.J. went full throttle in the last corner and I went from first to seventh at the start. I recovered and finished third or fourth. But a lot of things like that happened that year."

As Junqueira struggled, teammate Bourdais swept to his third straight Champ Car title winning seven of fourteen races and qualifying on the front row in all but three races. Junqueira finished fifth in the championship without any wins and was dropped by Newman/Haas at the end of the year, replaced by Graham Rahal. Bruno drove for Dale Coyne's team in 2007 and '08 and qualified one of A.J. Foyt's cars at Indianapolis the last two years, although infamously his ride this past May was bought out from under him.

© Gary Gold
Da Matta went through an even more difficult rehab program than Junqueira after he suffered serious head injuries when he ran into a deer while testing at Elkhart Lake in the summer of '06. Cristiano spent seven weeks in hospital in Wisconsin following the accident, then one week in Miami before flying home to Belo Horizonte in Brazil to begin his rehabilitation. He had to learn how to speak again and steadily worked his way into a vigorous fitness program focused on plenty of biking.

"I've always been pretty strict about training," Cristiano remarks. "I was always a big cycling fan. I think the physical part was always one of my strengths in racing. I think it always helped me.

"In December '06, only three or four months after I had the accident, they released me to start riding my bicycle again and I never rode my bicycle so much in my whole life! In 2007, I rode my bicycle 350 days. It was great to do something I Iiked and I knew was going to be important to me if I got the opportunity to drive again."

Later that year he started racing both on mountain bikes and in road races. "It was very good news because I felt my recovery was getting closer. I raced my mountain 'bike and my road 'bike. I did many mountain 'bike races and I did similar results to what I did in the past, and it was fun, too. Racing anything is always fun, whatever it is. It was great to be back to competition."

Near the end of 2007 da Matta was cleared by Doctor Steve Olvey to start driving again.

"In 2008 I started looking around for whatever I could find. I did two Grand-Am races but I didn't get anything going. The whole planet was struggling with the economy at that time, so that didn't help. I spent the whole year here in the US in 2008 trying to find a ride, looking everywhere you can imagine. I spent the whole year trying to find a ride and I couldn't get anything. So I thought this isn't going to get any easier for 2009. It was only going to get more difficult.

"So I went back to Brazil and worked with my brothers in their company. It's not what I wanted to do, but they are good guys and run a good business and it was good to work with them. In 2009 I didn't do any racing. I worked at the office. It was very nice, but not fun you know."

The da Matta brothers manufacture clothing and equipment for cycling and mountain biking and Cristiano helped run the office. He enjoyed working with his brothers but missed racing.

"I gave up on racing, but racing is fun and at the end of 2009 some guys told me about an opportunity in Brazil's Formula Truck racing series. I said, 'Sure, let's try it.' I'd never driven a truck in my whole life but I said if I can go there and test I might do it. The guys at Iveco organized everything for me to go to the last race of the season and the next day they asked me if I wanted to drive for them in the 2010 season. So that's what I did in 2010. I raced for the Iveco truck team.

"10,000 pounds, 1,100 horsepower!" he grins. "It's something man! I did the whole season in the truck series and it was fun. But I decided I wasn't going to race trucks again in 2011 because the level of the sport was that anyone could do it. It was so slow, so easy to drive and I kept on thinking, 'What am I doing here?' It was fun to drive because you go sideways a lot but the performance level is the same for everyone and it makes everyone equal. So I decided at the end of the year that I wasn't going to race for Iveco again."

© Gary Gold
Da Matta flew to Miami to spend Christmas and New Year with his many American friends, including some race drivers. One of these was Oriol Servia who Cristiano met for brunch on the last day he was in Miami.

"We had brunch and we were talking about racing and I told Oriol about racing trucks and said I wasn't going to do it this year. I told him my reasons and Oriol was thinking and he said, 'I've got this opportunity with Newman/Haas but the sponsorship isn't a hundred percent confirmed.' He said he wanted to go with Newman/Haas, and of course I understood why.

"But he said he also had an opportunity with Jaguar and Gentilozzi. He said he would go to Paul and tell him I was the guy for Paul to hire. And that's what he did. Oriol was my manager. It was very nice. He's a very good friend.

"By the end of January it was a done deal. I went to Spring Training at Sebring. That was the first time I drove the car and Servia was there because he was going to be third driver in the longer races. So he was at Sebring and he'll be there at Road Atlanta in the fall. It's going to be nice."

At the same time Gentilozzi was making a deal with Junqueira to be da Matta's teammate. Gentilozzi is a well-informed student of racing and he knew it would be a perfect match.

"In December Paul called me and told me he wanted me to drive for his team," Bruno relates. "I went to Lansing in the first week of January and talked to him and we made an agreement. It was very straightforward. The program is new so there's a lot of work to be done, but it's a good team and Jaguar are behind it. We tested at Sebring before the first race which was tough, but Long Beach was great and they've done a lot of work on the cars since then."

Junqueira says he always believed he would find himself racing sports cars around this stage of his career.

"When I was 25 and racing in Champ Car I thought that around 34, 35, 36 is the average age that a single-seater driver stops driving single-seaters and goes and does something else," he remarks. "So even back then I thought I would drive sports cars and I'm going to be 35 at the end of this year and here I am driving sports cars. So it was a goal I had ten years ago and it's happening now."

Both of them are full of enthusiasm for their new lives in the ALMS with Gentilozzi's team. JaguarRSR runs a second Jaguar for PJ Jones and Rocky Moran Jr.

"Sebring was tough for the team because the car was so new," da Matta observes. "There was no time to test before Long Beach but we went to Long Beach and finished sixth which was pretty good considering everything. After Long Beach they worked very hard on the cars. They've done a lot of development in the wind tunnel and on the shaker rig. We haven't been very busy but now we are racing every other weekend for the next three months so we're going to be very busy.

"One of the things I like about this series is it runs at a bunch of really good road courses and the other thing I really like about this series is that if you look at the drivers in all the ALMS categories there are a lot of very good drivers and in the GT class there are a lot of big dogs--Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette, BMW and Jaguar. It's a very nice series."

© Gary Gold
Junqueira is an equal fan of the ALMS.

"I love the American Le Mans Series," Bruno grins. "I'm enjoying it so much this year. It's very well run. There are a lot of very well-prepared cars and teams and the series runs at a lot of very nice places and the fans are very knowledgeable about racing. It's a lot like the Champ Car races at Road America or Laguna Seca used to be and we are racing at those places. Those are the historic race tracks of America with big race fans, high-tech auto fans. So it's nice to race in front of these people.

"The other thing that's nice about this series is the big competition in the GT class with the Jaguars racing against the Porsches, the Ferraris, the Corvettes and BMWs. These are cars that people want to own out there racing against each other and it's very, very competitive. So it's a great place to race."

Da Matta, 37, has been married for three years and his wife Vanessa is expecting their first child in December. But Cristiano is delighted to be able to spend the summer in the United States.

"Having spent a good time of my professional life here in the US, I started missing it when I was at home in Brazil. I think maybe I've become more of an American than a Brazilian because I know so many people here and because I like the overall life style. It's very nice. I like it here."

Junqueira has been married to Luciana for three and half years and they have a son, Enzo, ten months old. Junqueira lives in Miami and is pleased to enjoy a new learning experience

"We are learning as drivers in this series," Bruno says. "That's good too. I think Cristiano and I have shown we are among the best of open-wheel racing drivers but we both need to learn about these cars and this series. We are learning and the team is learning. Everybody is learning together, getting better together. So that's good too. I have no doubt that both of us can get the full potential out of the car but this is the first time for us in the car and the first time for both of us at places like Lime Rock and Mosport where others have been there for ten years."

Junqueira says he most likely will try to qualify for the Indy 500 once again next year but stresses that he now thinks of himself as ALMS Jaguar driver.

"I'm always interested in Indianapolis but right now I'm focused on the American Le Mans Series," Bruno says. "This is a full-time ride and that's the way I'm looking at it. Cristiano and I will keep working with the team, testing when we can, helping make the car better and more competitive. It's very exciting. I'm really enjoying it."

Da Matta is equally excited about his new life in racing.

"You know, for open-wheel, I'm an old guy," Cristiano grinned. "But for here in sports cars I've got another ten years if I like. It will be nice to be involved in racing for another ten or fifteen years."

Good luck to da Matta and Junqueira this year as they work to push Gentilozzi's pair of Jaguars deeper into the thick of the ALMS's highly competitive GT battle.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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