CONCORD, N.C. — When Pietro Fittipaldi makes his Formula One debut for the Haas F1 Team on Dec. 6 at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit, it’ll be the culmination of a journey that started nearly 10 years ago.
Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, two-time Formula One champion and 1989 CART champion Emerson Fittipaldi, will be the substitute driver for Romain Grosjean. Grosjean was injured in a massive crash that split his car in half on the first lap of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit, resulting in a fireball that left him with burns on his hands and ankles.
A 24-year-old Brazilian, who was born in Miami, Fla., Fittipaldi didn’t set out to make a living racing open-wheel race cars. In 2011, it appeared his racing career was headed in a different direction.
A teenager at the time, Fittipaldi, who was already an experienced kart racer, ran a limited late model for Lee Faulk Racing at North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway.
“When I was 14, I got the chance to test a late model with Lee Faulk Racing in 2010 at Hickory,” Fittipaldi told SPEED SPORT in 2018. “We actually did two races that year at the end of the year. Then we decided to do the full season in 2011 with the limited late model.”
The limited late model class features full-sized stock cars with less horsepower and serves as a stepping-stone division to the premier late model stock car division at Hickory. Fittipaldi won four times in 2011 en route to capturing the limited late model track championship. He was also the top rookie in the division.
Seeing how successful Fittipaldi was becoming, his family moved from Florida to Davidson, N.C., so Fittipaldi could immerse himself in the racing culture that is prevalent in the Charlotte, N.C., region.
“My whole family moved just for me to follow my racing career,” Fittipaldi said.
After winning Hickory’s limited late model championship, Fittipaldi and Lee Faulk Racing stepped up to the late model class in 2012. Fittipaldi fell short of the championship, finishing fifth in the standings and winning the season-ending Fall Brawl.
“I have to say the people at Hickory are extremely passionate about racing,” Fittipaldi said. “We’d go out almost every weekend and we’d have a race almost every Saturday, so it was almost 23, 24 races a year. There were always 2,000 or 3,000 people going to watch a race, so that was pretty cool.”
With his stock car career on the path to success, a wrench was thrown into the gears. He got an offer to go open-wheel racing.
“That was when I got the opportunity from there to go from NASCAR racing to open-wheel racing,” Fittipaldi said. “That was through a racing program called Escudería Telmex, they are involved in NASCAR Mexico (in 2018). They heard I was winning races at Hickory and Hickory was really competitive back then. You always got a good showing of late model cars there.
“That’s when I got the opportunity to go to Europe and to go from NASCAR to open-wheel racing in Europe.”
Fittipaldi explained that if he were to stay in America and continue his pursuit of a career in NASCAR, the next logical step would have been what was then known as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. However, he didn’t have the required sponsorship money it would have taken to do that.
So when Escudería Telmex offered him the chance to switch to open-wheel racing, he didn’t have to do much thinking.
“The next step from where I was would have been to start racing K&N and I didn’t have the sponsorship to do that,” Fittipaldi said. “These guys wanted to sponsor me and bring me into their program, but to go race in Europe.”
Despite the change from stock cars to open-wheel cars, Fittipaldi continued to thrive. In 2014, he captured Protyre British Formula Renault championship and then won the 2015-16 MRF Challenge Formula 2000 championship. He continued his winning ways in 2017, adding another championship in the World Series Formula V8 3.5 series.
“I like NASCAR and stock car racing because you’re always racing somebody. That’s what’s so amazing about it,” Fittipaldi said in 2018. “What I like about the open-wheel cars is they have a lot more downforce on them. They have the wings, they have the diffuser. You have a lot higher cornering speed, you’re able to brake a lot deeper and you race on road courses. It’s completely different styles. They’re both racing, but completely different styles.”
Fittipaldi returned to America on a part-time basis in 2018, splitting his time between the NTT IndyCar Series and road racing in Europe. He was scheduled to make his debut in the Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne Racing, but he broke both his legs during qualifying for a World Endurance Championship race at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, forcing him to miss the Indianapolis 500.
Later that year, Fittipaldi was named a test and reserve driver for the Haas F1 Team, opening the door for him to one day make his Formula One debut.
That day is Dec. 6, when Fittipaldi will strap into the Haas VF-20 to race against drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit.
From Hickory Motor Speedway track champion to Formula One, Fittipaldi has come a long way.