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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/ Cristiano da Matta is ready to return to racing in the Grand-Am series

by Gordon Kirby
It was business-as-usual at Daytona over the weekend as Chip Ganassi's team scored its third straight Rolex 24 hours victory, a first for the event. Ganassi's lead Lexus-Riley driven by Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas/Dario Franchitti/Juan Pablo Montoya ran a faultless, trouble-free race to win by two laps.

"It was just like last year," Pruett said. "We had zero problems. In fact, there's just one little mark on the car. We didn't hit anybody and we could run fast without getting ourselves into trouble."

Second went to Bob Stalling's Grand-Am champion Gainsco team's Pontiac-Riley with Jon Fogarty/Alex Gurney/Jimmy Vasser/Jimmie Johnson at the wheel. The Gainsco drivers battled for the lead most of the way only to lose time on Sunday morning when the gearbox began to fail, forcing them to the pits for a rapid transmission change. Third place another four laps behind was the similar Penske/Wayne Taylor entry driven by Ryan Briscoe/Helio Castroneves/Kurt Busch.

Even though the Grand-Am cars lack the spectacular visual and aural appeal of sports car racing's grand old days of yore, this year's Rolex 24 was a very competitive event, as the NASCAR-inspired Grand-Am always is with many cars in the hunt most of the way. The close running and many lead changes at Daytona were exacerbated by persistent drizzle and heavy rain in the middle of the night and the huge number of full-course yellows--no fewer than twenty-four in fact, totalling six hours!

Sports car racing ain't what it used to be in many ways, yet the essential challenge for the drivers and teams remains the same. Pruett has driven Ganassi's cars to win at Daytona the last three years and has a total of eight outright and class wins at Daytona.

"This was a tough race," Pruett commented. "There were a lot of really fast cars we were up against and we always had to push hard. The conditions were pretty treacherous because it would rain, then it was dry, then it was a little bit wet, and that makes for a really tough race. And I think that's why you saw so many cautions as well. Those sort of conditions are just horrible to drive in.

© Paul Webb
"In my view, this is the most difficult twenty-four hour race in the world," Pruett continued. "It's a true test of man, machine and team. At this race you have at least twelve or thirteen hours of darkness, you've got a track that's 3.5 miles long, and you start sixty-seven cars with an unbelievable differential in speed. Then you had the rain, part-rain, part-dry. It was just dismal conditions through the middle of the night. That's one reason why there were so many cautions.

"The nature of this track and running the race in January makes it tough. I've raced Le Mans and won my class at Le Mans, but this is by far a lot more difficult than that race."

One of the Rolex 24's biggest draws in this day and age is the wide range of drivers from NASCAR, IRL, Champ Cars and elsewhere joining the sports car regulars in the annual twice 'round the clock grind. And too, the nicest thing about the Rolex 24 is that so many people show up from so many different realms of the sport. After the short winter break from racing, it's a great place to catch up on who's doing what with their lives.

Of all the many different people and personalities I bumped into last weekend I was most delighted to talk to Cristiano da Matta who is now fully recovered from his collision with a deer at Elkhart Lake eighteen months ago.

"I wanted to show people that I'm here and I'm ready to go, ready to drive," Cristiano told me. "I want to get back to work and work towards a goal, and I'm ready for that. I've been talking to some people and I've got some nice conversations going."

In fact, da Matta will test one of Bob Stalling's Gainsco Grand-Am cars in March and Stallings is trying to put together the sponsorship to run da Matta and Jimmy Vasser in a second Gainsco entry in all the Grand-Am races starting at Laguna Seca in May. Stallings confirmed at Daytona last weekend that the test is scheduled and he's looking for sponsorship for Vasser and da Matta to race regularly in the Grand-Am beside Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty.

"I'm going to be testing for Bob Stallings at Eagle Creek Raceway in Texas in March," da Matta revealed. "He's trying to get a program together for Jimmy and me to do the Grand-Am series in another car for his team, starting at Laguna Seca. It's a championship team and to do it with Jimmy, who is not only a very good driver but he's also a great friend of mine, for me, I could not dream of a better way to get back to racing. We've been teammates and we're very good friends. He's a very cool guy and it would be great if it happened."

Vasser has spent most of his time over the past two years as a Champ Car co-team owner, rather than racing, and he was delighted to join Gurney, Fogarty and Jimmie Johnson to finish second last weekend.

"I ran two stints, totalling five hours during the night and in the rain," Vasser remarked. "It was great! I was able to pass Dario and put twenty seconds on him. I don't consider myself a rainmeister but it felt good and we ran as quick, or quicker, than anyone out there. So that made me feel good and gave me a lot of confidence."

Vasser is excited by the prospect of co-driving with da Matta for most of this year's Grand-Am series, starting at Laguna Seca, his home track. "It would great for it to happen," Jimmy grinned. "It could bring some added interest to Laguna for the Champ Car/Grand-Am twin-bill. Everybody in the sport needs to work together to make things like this happen."

Da Matta also discussed the hard work that went into his lengthy rehabilitation program. He spent seven weeks in hospital in Wisconsin following the accident, then one week in Miami before flying home to Belo Horizonte in Brazil.

© F. Pierce Williams/LATUSA
"The doctors wanted to do the whole recovery in my native language--Portuguese," da Matta explained. "At the beginning, it was tough. Every day there was physical therapy and speech therapy. Every day I did both and I felt it was speeding up the recovery and I just kept going every day.

"I could speak everything okay. That wasn't a problem. The speech therapy was mostly about memory, especially very short term memory. I knew I had to do a lot of physical therapy because I lost of lot of muscle mass while I was in hospital."

Da Matta says recovering fully from his brain injuries was a curious and sometimes testing experience. "Mentally, I was always thinking that I was a hundred percent and ready to go. I thought I had recovered. But if you had asked me a month later I would have said that a month ago I thought I was a hundred percent and look, now I am a hundred percent. And then another month and I would think exactly the same. It went that way for another couple of months. When I look back, I can see how much I improved, but at the time, I thought I was okay and ready to race when I wasn't.

"So of course, I am glad that I had good doctors around me who kept telling me to wait a little longer. But they have released me now and I am ready to go. I don't feel gaps any more, like I did for a long time. It took ten or eleven months, maybe a year. Until July or August of last year I was always feeling these gaps that I went through, like I'm saying. I don't know the reason why. Your recovery process from a brain injury can fool you a little bit. You're always thinking you're ready to go but you're not. It's very confusing. I'm happy those days are behind me and I really appreciate all the help I had from the doctors."

A longtime fan of cycling, da Matta spent a huge amount of time on his road and mountain 'bikes over the past year. "By March or April of last year I was back to my normal weight and my muscles were all back. The physical therapy was much easier to understand than the mental side. It was much more simple and I've never had so much time to train in my whole life.

"I've always been pretty strict about training. 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.

"By August, the doctors allowed me to get back into some bicycle races. I asked them if I could get into some bicycle racing and they allowed me to do that. So 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."

Da Matta also went to work in an office for the first time in his life at his brothers' sports clothing business. "By the middle of '07 I was doing the speech therapy fewer and fewer times a week," Cristiano said. "Initially it was every day, then three times a week, then two times a week, and then I got released. And then I had too much time doing nothing. I would get annoyed because I needed something to do. Training and racing on the 'bike every day was great but I also started working for my brothers.

"They have a little company making sports clothes. We all live together with our parents back in Brazil so we are together every day and one day they asked me if I wanted to come to their office and help them. They said there were a lot of things I could help them with. I said they better be careful because they would be getting a guy who had never been to an office in his life! So I started going into the office every day with them and that helped me, too. Just the fact that I was working helped me a lot."

Da Matta was finally cleared to start driving again at the end of last November by Doctor Steve Olvey. "It was late November when the doctors released me," Cristiano related. "They were a little bit concerned about the impact from any accident in a race car. It can happen. Hopefully, it's never going to happen again, but it can even happen in a very small crash. So they asked me to wait until finally in late November they said it was fine for me to go back racing.

"Dr Olvey booked a test in Miami. I first did the test in July and he asked me to wait a little bit longer, until January. Then I went to visit Dr Olvey in November and we sat and talked. I told him everything I had been doing and he asked me if I wanted to do the test next week, rather than waiting until January. He told me he had a good feeling that I was going to be fine. So I went back a week later and did the test and he told me, 'No problem, you're ready.'

"He told me not to get back in a superfast race car right away. He said do a bit of karting, just do it step-by-step, and if you feel good you can go back to whatever you want to drive."

After a handful of laps in a kart, Cristiano was relieved to discover all his old skills were still there, sharp as ever. "I got back in a go-kart and I was very nervous," he remarked. "I thought maybe I had become a wanker. But I went out and after the first three laps everything felt a hundred percent normal. There wasn't even one little question mark. Everything was there exactly the same as it was before.

"I still have to get back in a proper race car to get the last question mark out of my mind. But hopefully, it's going to come back just like the go-kart. I'm just waiting for that day."

And thanks to Bob Stallings that day will come a month and a half from now. It will be good to see da Matta back in action and a shot in the arm for the Grand-Am to have great open-wheel champions like Vasser and da Matta in the field.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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