Meet Vitor Meira: Indy car cult hero

Vitor Meira, left, rides the Turn 1 wall as sparks fly for Raphael Matos at the 2009 Indianapolis 500. AP Photo/Bill Friel

Yes, Vitor Meira has watched the tape of last year's Indianapolis 500.

You know the one. Where he catches on fire in the pits and drives away to thunderous applause and then ends up hitting the Turn 1 wall so hard he broke it and then rim-rode all the way into Turn 2, right wheels on the ground, left wheels on the wall, sliding along at a right angle to the asphalt. At 200 mph. Backward.

"I actually watched the crash while I was still in the hospital," the 33-year-old Brazilian said with a laugh during Monday's rain-ruined practice sessions. "The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is 100 years old and I am easily the record-holder for longest distance traveled on top of the wall."

It is that sense of humor -- cracking wise about a crash that broke two vertebrae -- that has endeared Meira to the Indy car set, both in the paddock and the grandstands. He is often referred to as "the best Indy car driver who's never won a race." In 102 IRL starts he has 28 top-5s and 59 top-10s, but no wins.

It would be just as accurate to describe him as the most-liked racer in Gasoline Alley. Finding someone who doesn't like Meira is more difficult than getting his boss, A.J. Foyt, to name a driver faster than he was.

In other words, it's impossible.

"There is a reason that so many people were so excited when Vitor finished on the podium in Sao Paolo," said Tony Kanaan, referring to his countryman's third-place finish in the March 14 season opener. "They love him because he races hard and he works hard. People love an underdog and a comeback story."

The comeback part of Meira's story is indisputable. That wild wall ride at Indy one year ago landed him in the hospital for three days and forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the 2009 season. He was stuck in rehab just four races into his new ride with Foyt, a stint that started with a promising top-10 finish on the St. Petersburg, Fla., street course.

"I am a goal-oriented person, so the rehab work was just another task I had to complete to race again, you know?" Meira said. "And all along the way A.J. and [son] Larry Foyt kept telling me to just get better, do what I had to do and that my job with them was safe. That was such a relief."

Foyt knows a little something about recovering from injuries. The 75-year-old has managed to mangle every limb of his legendary body at least once. He's broken his back twice, damaged his aorta and survived showdowns with everything from killer bees to bulldozers. The last big crash of his career was a 1990 airborne launch into an embankment at Elkhart Lake, Wisc. It left his legs -- in his words -- pulverized. The pain was so bad that he begged safety crews to hit him in the head with a hammer to knock him out. The following May, at the age of 56, he was back on the track for his 34th Indy 500. He started on the front row.

"A.J. has assured me that there's no crash I could ever have that he hasn't already tried," Meira said. "Everyone made such a big deal out of me flying through the air at Milwaukee [in 2008], but A.J. says until I flip completely outside of the track to stop bragging."

That day, when he catapulted over the tire of spinning Marco Andretti and sailed a good 20 feet, cemented Meira's cult status among hard-core Indy car fans. Then with Panther Racing, he climbed out of the flattened race car and deadpanned, "Getting airborne isn't that bad. It's landing that caused all the problems."

He was equally as cool during last May's Indy 500 pit fire, which happened before his crash, engulfing his Dallara in bright orange flames. As the crew scrambled for water buckets, Meira never panicked. He sat patiently in the cockpit, watching the arms and legs of his fire suit burn, gauging the heat level that was growing against his skin and comparing it to the progress of the crew's efforts around him. The water beat the burns.

I don't want this to come off the wrong way. But the fire was pretty cool. I watch the wreck, and it can be a little scary. But I watch the fire and I'm like, 'Man, that looks cool.'

-- Vitor Meira

Once the flames were out, everyone waited for the driver to climb out of the car. Instead, he snapped down his visor, pulled out of the pits and returned to the track, waterlogged cockpit and all. The image of A.J.'s famous No. 14 emerging from the fire conjured up images of Foyt's Paul Bunyan-like past on that same pit lane.

The massive crowd in the frontstretch grandstand came to its feet and roared its approval.

"I don't want this to come off the wrong way," Meira said when asked to recall his thoughts during the incident. "But the fire was pretty cool. I watch the wreck, and it can be a little scary. But I watch the fire and I'm like, 'Man, that looks cool.' And some of the photos that I've seen are unbelievable."

Then he pauses and catches himself. "But just to be clear, I don't want to do that again."

So, is his return to Indianapolis after 2009's fire and side-ride a comeback? There's no doubt. As for the underdog part of the equation, Meira doesn't want to hear it. "Every year I've been here it's been the same story. 'Hey, here's Vitor the underdog, the dark horse, the sleeper.' I don't know if people realize how close I have come to winning the 500, and more than once."

The numbers back him up. This is his eighth month of May as an Indy car driver and his career average finish is ninth. Before last year's crash, his first finish outside the top 10 since his rookie year of '03, that average finish was seventh. In the five years between his rookie run and last season he posted five straight top-10s, including runner-up efforts in '05 and '08, one each with Rahal-Letterman and Panther. During that stretch his average finish was sixth.

"I just took to the track as soon as I first got here," Meira said. "It just felt right, you know? And I was in great cars. That always helps."

This year Meira is admittedly not in a first-tier ride with Foyt Racing. Not yet, anyway. He does, however, believe that it is a top-10 ride, something he certainly knows how to recognize. With a week and half to work on it, plus what he calls "A.J.'s built-in Indy database," being near the front in the closing laps isn't out of the question.

"No, it isn't," he admitted, suddenly laughing again and recalling last year's one-man Joie Chitwood Thrill Show. "But even if we don't win, I seem to be pretty good at getting everyone's attention."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.