He’s won a pair of Formula 1 world driving championships, the first, at age 25, marking him as the then-youngest champion in the history of the sport. He’s captured two Indy 500 wins as well, plus a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series title. On December 2, Emerson Fittipaldi adds one more accolade to his CV, when he’s presented with the 2019 Spirit of Competition Award from the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Emerson, along with older brother Wilson, grew up immersed in racing. Their father was a motorsport journalist, and from an early age the Fittipaldi brothers raced anything they could get their hands on, including motorcycles, hydrofoils and go-karts. As the expenses for these activities grew, the brothers started a series of racing-related businesses to fund their passion.
Emerson won a karting championship in his native Brazil at age 18, followed by a Formula Vee championship at age 21. Convinced that the opportunity to further his career lay across the Atlantic Ocean, he moved to England in 1968, at age 22, speaking only Portuguese. The language barrier proved to be a non-issue, since from the beginning, Emerson showed great promise behind the wheel of a race car. Even a late start to the 1969 Formula Three season proved no obstacle, as the Brazilian driver earned nine victories, enough to capture the series’ championship.
Formula Two followed, but by the middle of the 1970 season, Emerson was racing for Gold Leaf Team Lotus in Formula One. At the season’s 10th race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, tragedy struck when the team’s star driver, Jochen Rindt, was killed in a qualifying crash. With just three races and four qualifying sessions in the F1 series to his credit, Emerson was appointed the squad’s leader when Lotus driver John Miles announced his retirement from racing.
At the very next race, the 1970 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Emerson earned his first F1 victory, and in the process, secured the posthumous championship for Rindt. Though 1971 was a disappointing year for Lotus in F1, Emerson put it back on top in 1972, earning his first F1 championship. His second championship, this one with McLaren, came in 1974.
In 1976, still at his peak, Emerson walked away from the sport’s established teams to form Copersucar-Fittipaldi Racing, with brother Wilson and backing from the Brazilian sugar industry. The decision proved disastrous for Emerson’s racing career, and over five seasons, the championship-winning driver managed just two podium finishes. Following the 1980 season, Emerson retired from racing to focus on team management, but at the end of the 1982 season, the Fittipaldi team shut its doors and entered receivership.
The lure of open-wheel racing proved too great, and in 1984 Emerson began competing in the U.S.-based CART series. After five races with under-funded teams, Emerson received an offer to drive for Patrick Racing, beginning a relationship that would last through the 1989 season and produce an Indy 500 win and a series championship, both in 1989. Team Penske hired Emerson in 1990, and the Brazilian would earn his second Indy 500 win in 1993. He remained with the super squad through the 1995 season and into 1996.
A crash at Michigan International Speedway in 1996 effectively ended Emerson’s professional driving career, but then, pushing age 50, retirement was likely looming on the horizon anyway. He remained active in the series as a driver coach and advisor, and in 2003 (briefly) resumed the role of team owner, with the short-lived Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing team.
In the years since, Emerson has focused on his various business interests, with the occasional return to the cockpit. He’s been inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (in 2001), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame (in 2004), and has been named an honoree at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance (in 2018). He joins a long list of racing’s elite as a recipient of the Simeone Foundation’s Spirit of Competition Award.
Now in its 12th year, past Spirit of Competition winners have included Roger Penske (2018), Derek Bell (2017), Peter Brock (2016), David Hobbs (2015), Bobby Rahal (2014), Hurley Haywood (2013), Sam Posey (2012), Craig Breedlove (2011), John Cooper Fitch (2010), Mario Andretti (2009) and Janet Guthrie (2008). The ceremony, emceed by Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance founder Bill Warner, will take place on Monday, December 2, from 6 – 10 p.m., and tickets are on sale through November 25. For additional information, or to purchase tickets, visit simeonemuseum.org/museum-news/emerson-fittipaldi-named-2019-spirit-of-competition-winner/.