Matos looks forward to step up to Champ Car
It takes more than a bowl of Wheaties to become a champion. It takes a winning desire and a drive to overcome any obstacle; it takes a commitment to success. Obstacles are nothing new to Raphael Matos (born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil but now living in Miami) nor are championships.
The easy-going, open wheel ace has faced nothing but challenges throughout his career.
With no major sponsors to back his effort, Matos has had to win to move from one category to the next in pursuit of his dreams. It is this necessity of winning that has given him a commitment to strive for excellence and the confidence to know that he can beat the best. It is also what has kept him humble with an overwhelming appreciation for where he is.
Throughout his career Matos has followed a steady pattern of entering a new series and winning races almost immediately. By the second year of every major championship he has entered, Rafa, as he is best known at race tracks around the world, has become champion. Should that trend continue, Matos will charge to a strong showing in the Champ Car World Series in 2008 then take the driver's title in 2009.
In his career Matos is known as a champion. The Cooper Tires Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship powered by Mazda Series title this year was proceeded by the Star Mazda Pro Series Championship in 2005, the Formula Dodge National Championship in 2003 and the Chevrolet Formula Junior, Brazil title in '01. Dating back to his early beginnings in karting, one must include three Minas Gerais State Kart Championships and two Belo Horizonte City Kart Championships. A remarkable record for one so young and all came against top competition.
Matos, considered one of the brightest stars to come from Brazil's wealth of motorsports talent since the 1990s, is not sitting back by the pool in Miami during the off-season. Moving forward, always striving to be better is what makes a driver into a winner. Focusing on it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is what makes a champion. Since accepting the 2007 Champ Car Atlantic title at Road America in August, Matos has raced the Mazda LMP2 prototype in the Petit Le Mans, helped his championship-winning Sierra-Sierra team test new drivers for its Atlantic program and raced in the internationally recognized United States karting championships; the SKUSA SuperNationals in Las Vegas. This all added to a daily fitness routine designed to maximize his performance in any race car, or kart, that he slides behind the wheel of.
"Personally, everything I do is for this," commented Matos regarding his work ethic. "It is a constant thing. The more you think about it, the more you dedicate time; the results are going to be better and better. So, even if I am in gym, running or cycling, I am thinking about the car; how to make things better. I work so hard to drive one of the coolest cars on the planet. I am having fun doing something that I enjoy and making a living off of it. That is what is great about it."
As any true champion is, Matos is the most at home in the car. Whether it is the awesomely quick open wheelers he has made a name for himself with or the precision needed for the fast, purpose-built prototypes of the endurance racing in the American Le Mans Series or the Lightning fast, reflex-driven karts that he honed and now maintains his skills on, Matos is never out of place when behind the wheel. It is that comfort and personal effort that has set Matos apart.
Matos reflects on this: "It is something natural for me. When I am inside a car it is so natural, I feel so comfortable doing that job. I feel that I can drive a race car fast and I can do a better job than the other guys. That makes me want to try even harder to be better. The challenge is what makes you hungry. I am a very hungry guy. I always like to be at the front but sometimes you have to stop yourself from doing that. You have to control yourself. Every time I wasn't in the front there was something that was not connected with me or with the car. You want to be 100% quicker than yourself. It is trying to be perfect, trying to be the best. This is the type of confidence I have had this year."
2006 taught Matos a wealth of valuable lessons. One of the key lessons was learned the hard way. After being consistently quick in his rookie season of Atlantics, Matos suffered several late-race incidents holding him to only win (San Jose). Those trials behind him but not forgotten, Matos knew the championship was his for the taking in '07. He went on to capture six victories, four pole positions and nine podium finishes in twelve races. He clinched the title in the penultimate round at San Jose with an impressive and Smart drive to a fourth-place finish. While just off the podium, Matos opted to hold the spot, which is what he needed to clinch the title, instead of pressing to capture third on the tight street circuit as he might have just one year earlier. Showing that the title had not changed his desire, Matos attacked the Road America track at the finale placing the Sierra Sierra Enterprises No. 6 on the podium (second) in his final Atlantic Series event.
"I was fortunate enough to win the first three races which put me in a good position for the middle of the season. Sometimes, in specific situations, you change your mindset towards the championships. You have to have in your mind that you will be strong in the next race. I knew I was really consistent every race this season and that gives you a lot of confidence. A lot of times you find yourself in qualifying unable to put a lap together but whoever does the best job will have the best result in the race. Our goal was always to do our best in the race; to remember the bigger picture of the championship."
And remember it he did. After capturing nine titles in the eleven years he has been racing, what does "one more championship" mean to Matos?
"It means that the system works!" enthused Matos who has been the model for Mazda's development driver program. "If you are winning in this ladder system (Skip Barber, Star Mazda, Atlantics and Champ Car) you can move up. Mazda is starting to do this to develop their drivers. Preparing the drivers in the Atlantic series so that they have a better show in the Champ Car Series. I am expecting that this is my final step and I can make it into Champ Car for a few years and see what happens. My next goal is win a championship in Champ Car. For me, it is results and winning championships. It is what makes you feel good, winning races and winning championships. This is how you are rewarded. Professionally this is what is going to give me the chance to make the next step."
Matos is often seen as distant to some when in the paddock. At the track it is hard for even friends and family to break the focus glowing like embers behind his intense brown eyes. The desire is so concentrated that it is only when the day's work is done does Matos let his demeanor relax and his true personality show through. A kind and gentle person away from the competition, Matos knows his talent and knows his dreams but displays no arrogance. He never questions that he will reach his goals but he never lets his pride direct him. Matos appreciates and understands what it is that he has.
"My Dad called me the day that I won the championship and he told me that you have to appreciate what you have and what you have done. He said that first you have to thank God and you have to be thankful that you are a gifted guy and that God helps you. It is very difficult to get something like this in life and you have to appreciate it. You have to appreciate things in life. I have a great life no matter what is happening and I have realized how much I appreciate that."
Matos is yet to sign with a team for the 2008 Champ Car World Series. However, armed with the confidence built by what he has learned since starting in karts in Brazil coupled with one of the most impressive, patient and smartest championship campaigns in Atlantic history and the single-minded, fiery focus of a champion, few are expecting his unemployment to last very long.