8 February 2019

Oh deer! Fascinating F1 Facts: 71

The Potawatomi Indians believed that the pure waters of Elkhart Lake had miraculous healing powers and those who bathed in the lake would be rejuvenated. Even before the railroad arrived in 1872 there was a tourist industry, with visitors taking the train to Glenbeulah, five miles away, and then completing the journey in horse-drawn carriages.

It was an age when the busy folk of Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee would leave the heat and dust of the cities each summer, to enjoy the pleasant countryside around the lake.

Wealthy folk, such as Matheus Gottfried, a Chicago brewing magnate, bought 600 acres of land and created an estate featuring a game preserve, a zoo, a theatre and a number of houses, including one which actually floated on the lake…

Soon a number of German immigrant families were building hotels and 2,000 people a week were pouring into the area to enjoy the Osthoff, Siebken and Schwartz  resorts. And the visitors needed to be amused and soon there was a racecourse. In the 1920s, the attracted the bootleggers and gangsters of Chicago and in the 1950s there were the first automobile races in the area, using public roads. The first event in 1950 attracted 5,000 spectators, the second in 1951 drew 50,000 and by 1952 there were 100,000 fans at the event. It was clear that the local roads were not sufficient and so in 1955 they built a racing circuit called Road America. It was lovely, but the problem with racing in such places is that wildlife and Man are not always a good combination. People often end up weeping when they watch Walt Disney's animated feature film Bambi, which was first released back in 1942. It is a film in which Man was the bad guy and Bambi's mother was killed by hunters when they were out looking for food. But deer are not always cute.

In 1987 Stefan Johansson collided with a deer during qualifying for the Austrian GP in 1987, the impact destroying his McLaren and giving the Swede a very nasty shock. By comparison, he was lucky as a deer effectively ended the career of Brazilian Cristiano da Matta in the summer of 2006, when he was testing an Indycar at Road America in picturesque Elkhart Lake, in Wisconsin.

Da Matta was one of those drivers who had to make a detour on his way to Formula 1. The Brazilian won everything at home in Brazil, but failed to win in British Formula 3 and then in Formula 3000. This meant that he switched to Indy Lights in 1997 and suddenly the touch paper ignited. He won the title in 1998 with Steve Horne's Tasman Racing and then moved up to CART in 1999, landing a ride with the Arciero Wells team. The operation was rebranded as PPI Motorsport in 2000 and Da Matta gave the team its first CART victory in Chicago that year.

That was enough to get him noticed by the then mighty Newman/Haas Racing, and he was signed to race for the team in 2001, as the replacement for no less a figure than Michael Andretti. And Cristiano started out well, with a victory in his first race for the team, the Grand Prix of Monterrey, in Mexico. He would win twice more that year, but finished only fifth in the CART Championship. But in 2002 he won seven times and took the title.

Support from Toyota enabled him to switch to Formula 1 in 2003 with Panasonic Toyota Racing and he outperformed Olivier Panis, finishing 13th in the World Championship. He had high hopes for 2004 but it was a disappointing year and by midsummer he was dropped by Toyota, to make way for Ricardo Zonta, who made little real difference…

Da Matta went back to Champ Cars in 2005 with PKV Racing and won a race in Portland but then switched to Dale Coyne Racing in 2006. In the midseason he had the chance to switch to RuSport and had high hopes. But in August at Elkhart Lake, during a testing session, he had the misfortune to hit a deer, which had jumped an eight foot fence. The incident occurred just after the flat-out Turn 7 and he had no time to react. The car hit the deer with its right front wheel and the remains of the animal hit him, knocking him out. When the safety team arrived his foot was still hard on the throttle. He was airlifted the 40 miles to Theda Clark Medical Center in the town of Neenah, Wisconsin, and underwent emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma, being spending several days in a medically-induced coma. He would remain in hospital for more than six weeks and at the end of September he was sufficiently recovered to return to Road America and give the "Start your engines" instruction to his fellow CART racers. But he would not be seen in a car again until the start of the 2008 season when he tested a Daytona Prototype but he never returned to Indycar racing, doing a few truck races and some sports car events before deciding it was time to switch to running his family's clothing business.

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