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Cristiano da Matta Begins Professional Racing Comeback UPDATE GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team owner Bob Stallings and GAINSCO Senior Vice President of Corporate Marketing Andy Jordan confirmed in a press conference the highly-anticipated announcement that Cristiano da Matta and Jimmy Vasser will race a second team Pontiac Riley at the upcoming Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, May 17.

AutoRacing1.com spoke to da Matta Friday in Homestead and he clearly was happy to have the chance to be back in a race car, but he's not quite ready to step back into an IndyCar just yet.  Grand-Am will be a good test for the former Champ Car champion and F1 driver, who survived a near-fatal accident while testing at Road America on August 3, 2006 when he hit a deer.

“The only thing I remember was the deer crossing the race track,” da Matta said Friday. “For whatever reason, that (memory) hasn’t been deleted. He was just crossing from my left to my right; I tried to make it (past the deer) to the left side and didn’t make it.”

Jimmy Vasser introduced da Matta to Stallings during da Matta’s rehabilitation. Stallings offered da Matta the ride, and the last hurdle was cleared last week when da Matta completed a testing session near Dallas.

“In the very beginning this really was a project for a human being,” Stallings said. “We wanted to see him come back and get in a race car just for him. But I’ll tell you something — after the test, it kind of changed into something else. Even though I’m happy for him as a human being, I now know that he has been a champion before and he is going to be a champion again. And I want him to be a champion in the Rolex Series in a Bob Stallings racing car, and my guess is that’s going to happen very soon. He was absolutely awesome on the track.”

Cristiano da Matta
03/25/08 After being out of a race car for more than 19 months while recovering from a critical 2006 accident, championship-winning race car driver Cristiano da Matta didn't mind waiting another two days before his highly anticipated return to competitive driving in a test with GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing last week in Texas.

Nearly 24 straight hours of rain washed out da Matta's scheduled test last Tuesday and Wednesday at the new Eagles Canyon race track Northwest of Dallas, but the delay didn't bother da Matta in the least. After his devastating testing accident at Road America in August of 2006 when his Champ Car hit a wandering deer at full speed, da Matta persevered through several surgeries and months of grueling rehabilitation to literally rebuild him self back into racing shape.

"After what I have been through to get back to this point, what's two more days?" said da Matta, who finally took to the track on Thursday and quickly shook off any doubts – including his own – that he was still the champion driver he used to be.

"After the test, I realized 'I still know how to do this, I remember this very well,'" da Matta said. "The biggest thing I felt after the test was just a sense of relief. For me, it was a big, big relief, bigger than big. Even though I had opinions and approval from the best doctors and I felt great in go-karts and even on video games as far as my skills, I still had that last little question mark on my mind. That worried me quite a lot. After being away for so long, and driving being my work and something I like, I was concerned that I would not be able to do it as well."

As a Champ Car and Formula One veteran, da Matta has had little time in sports cars and he and the GAINSCO team had no previous experience on the new 2.5-mile Eagles Canyon track, which was greatly improved by the end of the test on Friday. The mid-week rain storms left the circuit wet and muddy but the track's operations crew did a good job getting the track ready and consistently improved throughout Thursday and Friday.

"Even driving a new car for the first time, that was something that I was able to quickly do, to figure out how it worked, what I need to do, just everything with getting familiar with a new car," da Matta said. "I have the same type of feeling I have always had before and I know exactly what I have to do to get better. The lap times were there and consistent. It was all there for me."

Also there for da Matta at the test was team owner Bob Stallings, reigning Grand-Am Rolex Series Co-Champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty and the entire GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team, including Engineer Kyle Brannan, Team Manager Terry Wilbert and Crew Chief Link Smith. Da Matta's parents Toninho and Maria were also in Texas to see their son's return to driving, and the relief the younger da Matta felt was reflected by his father.

"I feel lighter now," the younger da Matta said. "It was worrying me more than I thought, and for my Dad, it was even bigger. The way I saw my Dad when we finished the test, it was a big relief for him too. The test changed everything."

Gurney, who took the first laps in the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley in Thursday's less-than-ideal conditions picked up on the significance of the test for the entire da Matta family and the GAINSCO team.

"It was a special moment for everybody on the team to see Cristiano take to the race track again after his accident from a year and a half ago," Gurney said. "Both his Mom and Dad were there and you could see how much it meant to them. It was great to get to know Cristiano and his family a little bit better these past couple of days. After a few outings on the race track, it also became obvious to all of us that he had lost none of his speed. If and when a deal comes together, he will make a great addition to this team."

Team owner Stallings has made it known he would love to run da Matta in a second team car, possibly as soon as the May race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and ideally for the remainder of the 2008 season.

"Cristiano has really come along very well," said Stallings, who would pair da Matta with fellow Champ Car Champion Jimmy Vasser. "He had a positive test for us this week. His feedback on the car is outstanding, very crisp and very cogent. He had a good test and I feel very strongly he can develop even more as he learns the Daytona Prototype. He showed us enough to confirm that the comeback has begun. If we can put together the right sponsor package, we can run him full time. Ideally, we will find a sponsor to finish out the 2008 season and contend for a championship in 2009."

Stallings will be joined by da Matta and Vasser in a press conference this Friday at 2 p.m. ET at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Round 2 of the 2008 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series – The GAINSCO Grand Prix of Miami – will be run on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET. The race can be seen in same-day coverage on SPEED at 6 p.m. ET.
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