Keeping it Off The Wall

Jockey Shorts
Ed Donath
May 31, 2000
Don't be fooled by Cristiano da Matta when he says, in his entertaining Toyota TV commercial, that he's 5'4" and weighs 130 pounds but can manhandle a 1550-pound Champ Car with the best of the big guys...

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I have seen da Matta standing next to his former teammate, Scott Pruett - who's in the record books at 5'8" - and Scooter's a whole head taller than Little Cris. 

DO believe the part, however, about da Matta's Champ Car handling prowess. The diminutive Brazilian sophomore has proven himself to be a powerful force, despite having to work under dual handicaps for most of his short CART career.

Cristiano's impressive resume includes series championships in karting, Formula Ford, F3 and, of course, the 1998 Indy Lights campaign. Unfortunately, da Matta's rookie CART season was launched in a year when co-rookie Juan Montoya won Rookie of the Year honors coincidental to his winning of the PPG Cup. Montoya's unprecedented accomplishments certainly did overshadow Cristiano's unheralded skillful series debut, but then again, the Colombian super-rookie dominated CART rookies and veterans alike last year.

Da Matta's other 1999 handicap was underdeveloped Toyota engines that powered his Arciero-Wells (now PPI/Pioneer) Reynard. However, since Toyota has been improving "every day" in Y2K - and now even powers the mighty Montoya's car - Cris' career seems to have taken a positive turn. In the first five events of this season da Matta outscored Montoya 25 to 22 in the FedEx Championship Series points race. More importantly, Cristiano seems just as likely as Juan or Jimmy to provide Toyota with its desperately needed CART breakthrough victory.

With a Championship Points total of 42 to defending Champ Montoya's 22, Roberto Moreno could very well be the Brazillionaire Cristiano da Matta wants to be when he grows up…not that being a Moreno clone would make him any taller. Obviously, any 41-year-old nicknamed "Pupo" isn't someone you'd expect to look like Jethro Bodine. Roberto is petite enough to fit nicely on Mad Max Papis' shoulder. That shoulder became Moreno's podium seat during an extremely exuberant celebration in the winners' circle at Homestead. Nonetheless, Pupo, like da Matta, can horse a Champ Car around with the best of the big-muscle drivers.

Moreno's career-best P2 in the 2000 Season opener - his first-ever series start in a full-time, fully-funded Champ Car ride (Patrick Racing/Visteon Reynard-Cosworth) in a career that has sporadically spanned more than a decade - has since been followed by another podium finish at Motegi and points-scoring finishes in between at Long Beach and Rio.

The former Formula One pilot and perennial Indy/Champ Car "supersub" appears to be the most likely winless Champ Car driver to break through this season. Despite their size, Moreno and da Matta are not likely to be coming up short on raceday for very much longer.

Helio Castro-Neves, who many of us occasionally refer to as "Dash" because of his hyphenated surname, has decided to drop the hyphen! I don't like this idea - it reminds me of that Little Rascals episode in which Alfalfa got his straight-up cowlick plucked off by a chicken. The loss of his "personality" caused Alfalfa to (psychosomatically?) lose his inimitable crooning voice. I mean, it's OK for DaimlerChrysler to consolidate their CorpLogo, but Helio, what is Mrs. Dash going to say when she finds out? 

Comments can be sent to the author at contacts@autoracing1.com.

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