De Ferran won 2003 Indy 500
When the Indianapolis 500 winners were being honored at the same awards banquet, Rutherford told the just-retired and reigning Indy champion that this would be the toughest year of his life.
"I can certainly understand what he's saying," de Ferran said. "The sport of auto racing is not something that leaves you. I was in love with the sport, I still love the sport. It's likely I will have a few empty moments going forward."
De Ferran, who also won his last race, has already been tempted to return to racing.
After announcing his retirement last year from Roger Penske's IndyCar Series team, de Ferran was surprised by how many people approached him about continuing a two-decade driving career. There were even preliminary discussions with Formula One car owner Eddie Jordan.
"Finally, I came to my senses," he said. "I think it will be best if I resist."
Instead of racing at more than 200 mph, de Ferran's primary driving now is taking his kids to school. The 36-year-old Brazilian's role in racing will be off the track.
Thoughts of retirement started creeping into de Ferran's mind after the 2002 season. He made his choice public in August.
"I made a conscious decision, hopefully a mature decision, to stop driving," he said. "It wasn't like a spur of the moment thing.
"Although successful, I was feeling a little stagnated, and felt that was probably a prelude of bad things to come," he said. "Rather than go through a few years like that, I consciously decided to stop at what I thought was my best."
De Ferran started on the pole and won the IRL season finale at Texas in October. He also won at Nashville after giving Team Penske its third straight Indianapolis win.
Still, his final year wasn't without setbacks.
De Ferran missed the 2002 finale at Texas because of a concussion from a crash the week before. Last season, he wrecked at Phoenix, hurting his back and sustaining another concussion that kept him from going to Japan for the race before Indianapolis.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric sensed that de Ferran had a lot on his mind, but Indianapolis remained the focus. Serious talks about the future began about a month after the win at the Brickyard.
"Gil's one of those guys that once he's clear in his mind how to approach something, he doesn't look back or second-guess himself," Cindric said. "From every indication I have, he's happy with the decision and his career behind the wheel."
De Ferran's first championship came in go-carts in 1983 in Brazil. His Indy-car career began as CART's rookie of the year in 1995.
He joined Penske in 2000, and earned the pole his first two races.
"A lot of people don't realize how important that was for this organization," Cindric said. "To start that way, sitting on the pole, was a statement of `Here we come.' With Gil, it's been a good ride."
In his fifth race for Penske, de Ferran won at Nazareth. That gave the owner his 100th open-wheel victory and ended a three-year run without a win for the team.
De Ferran won consecutive CART championships (2000, 2001) before Penske moved his team to the IRL in 2002.
Sam Hornish Jr., the IRL's only two-time season champ, took over de Ferran's seat in one of the red-and-white Marlboro cars as two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves' teammate.
De Ferran is expected to follow the path of former drivers like Rutherford, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, who are still involved with the IRL.
"Gil has been great for the IRL the last couple of years with his involvement," league spokesman John Griffin said. "We are hopeful of finding a future role for him in terms of being an ambassador on behalf of the Indy Racing League."
For now, he's still just a spectator. De Ferran made the hour drive from his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home last week to watch IRL testing at Homestead.
"For him to ask me if it was OK to go in the truck to see the guys, he was sincere in that," Cindric said. "It smacks you in the face. He is on the outside."
That reality probably won't hit De Ferran fully until race day. He's not sure how he will react at the IRL opener Feb. 29 in Homestead, or at Indianapolis in May.
"I guess time will tell," he said. "We'll see how I react when I see everybody go out there and run off into turn 1 at a million miles an hour."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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