Getting a feel for BMS

Photo By Rick Harris Bobby Hamilton tests the Petty Enterprises No. 43 at BMS on Wednesday as driver Christian Fitapaldi looks on.

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
BRISTOL -- Rome wasn't built in a day. It's a certainty the Petty racing empire in Level Cross, North Carolina won't be rebuilt in a mere 24 hours, either.
After missing the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, the No. 43 team tried rebounding by testing Tuesday at Bristol Motor Speedway with driver Christian Fittipaldi.
"I'm still amazed at the G-forces here," said Fittipaldi, a native of Brazil, who speaks English as fluently as his native Portugese. "There are definitely a lot of G's with all the banking. Things happen pretty quick at this place."
It was Christian's second test session at Bristol. Last year was his first visit to the .533-mile short track, driving the No. 30 Mike's Hard Lemonade Busch Series Chevy. Despite that test, Christian did not attempt to race at BMS and will taste the excitement of racing at the fans' favorite track for the first time in a couple of a weeks.
"Testing here before has made things a little easier," said the Florida resident about his second visit to the high banks. "It's never on the easy side. This is definitely a very unique place. It's a special place and I'm looking forward to coming back here to race.
"It's a little different here than anywhere else I've raced. It's a little on the hard side, being so unique, but other than that it's pretty easy."
Indy was an embarrassment for the most famous race car in the sport, staying at home while ironically 43 other cars were competing for one of auto racing's biggest prizes. All blame can't be placed on Fittipaldi, a replacement for John Andretti at mid-season.
With Andretti's dismissal, it accelerated a plan on moving Christian to the top series. Originally this former open wheel star was supposed to cut his teeth in full-bodied cars on the ARCA circuit, move up to the Busch Series and then land at the Cup level.
"It's been rough because we were brought into a situation where we had no provisionals," said Fittipaldi. "We definitely have to make the race on time and it's a lot of pressure on the whole team. It's very difficult, but we can't complain because that is the situation which we have. We just have to fight and get ourselves out of the hole."
Plenty of hurdles have been placed in front of the team from the aborted A, B, C plan. Perhaps the steepest hurdle has been Christian trying to learn all the different tracks where the Winston Cup Series teams race.
"Everywhere I go, a lot of those places are my first time," said Fittipaldi. "The first time I went to Watkins Glen was two weeks before the race. This wasn't what we planned, but the situation changed. We just have to make the best out of it. I have to say I am really looking forward to getting to these tracks for a second time. I think it will make things a lot easier."
Fittipaldi, the nephew of former Formula One and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, has one of the most varied backgrounds in all of motorsports. He is the only active driver, who has raced Formula One, champ cars and on NASCAR's top circuit. He compared racing in all those different types of machines.
"The champ cars and the Formula One are very similar," said Christian, who finished fifth place in last year's CART point standings. "This is a one of a kind. It's special in a lot of different ways. It's completely different to anything I've ever experienced.
"It's a different type of talent required to drive each car. You have a lot of downforce over there (with the open wheel cars), but you don't have any margin for error. You make the car move very, very little and it's very sensitive. Any mistake over there and you are in the wall. The traveling speeds over there are a lot quicker than over here."
Further elaborating on the differences, Christian talked about some of the skills he sees with successful stock car drivers.
"The cars are in a way more forgiving here," said Fittipaldi, who owns two wins in the CART Series. "But, they aren't any easier (to drive). It's a different type of talent required for you to perform at the highest level over here."
Obviously, the Petty organization thinks Christian is versatile enough and talented enough to make the transition to the heavier cars. If they are right, he could become the cornerstone for rebuilding this race team into the empire that once dominated the NASCAR scene.