74 years ago today, a baby named Emerson Fittipaldi was born in São Paulo, Brazil. His family couldn’t have known it at the time, but Fittipaldi would grow up to become one of the most iconic racing drivers of his era, with wins and championships to his name across countless disciplines.
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Fittipaldi was named after the author Ralph Waldo Emerson, and both of his parents dabbled in racing while he was growing up. It only made sense that Fittipaldi and his brother Wilson would pick up anything that went fast: motorcycles, hydroplanes, and, when that didn’t work out, the two entered a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia in the 6 hours of Interlagos and, a year later, in the 12 hours of Porto Alegre.
He was 21 when he started the Formula Vee open-wheel series and made quick work jumping through the ranks. While we know racing drivers start out in motorsport exceptionally young nowadays, Fittipaldi was something of an outlier at the time, both because of his age and because of the natural talent that saw him launching into Formula One in 1970 at age 23.
Two years later, with John Player Team Lotus, Fittipaldi took the World Championship. In a 12-race season, he won five events, finished second twice, and third once. He retired from two other events and finished outside the points in another race.
At age 25, Fittipaldi was the youngest F1 World Champion in history, and he held that record for 33 years.
Among Fittipaldi’s other accolades are:
- 1974 F1 World Champion with McLaren
- Winner of the 1972 Race of Champions and BRDC International Trophy
- 1989 CART Champion with Penske
- 1989 and 1993 Indianapolis 500 Champion with Penske
- Motorsport Hall of Fame of America inductee in 2001
- Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2004
- Unofficially the best mutton chops in F1 history
- Scandalmaker who opted to drink orange juice instead of milk after the Indy 500
Fittipaldi is one hell of a character, the kind of racer that seems to enjoy racing for the hell of it. He’s noted for a great sense of humor and for his own push to create a safer racing environment during the dangerous 1970s in F1.
Despite a certain contingent of Indy 500 fans that still hold a grudge against him for defying tradition, that’s part of what’s made him such an iconic racer. He defected from McLaren to join his brother’s (largely unsuccessful) F1 team before deciding that a career in the controversy-ridden CART series was his best move. He wasn’t afraid to take the unpopular opinion that he wouldn’t race until safety was improved at the track in F1.
Since then, he’s been remembered as one of motorsport’s greats, and a great personality to boot.