By Jeff Olson
Ana Beatriz Caselato Gomes de Figueiredo – better known to American race fans as Ana Beatriz, better known to friends as Bia – burst on the Firestone Indy Lights scene in 2008, when she finished third in the final driver standings and won at Nashville for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. This year has had its moments for the 24-year-old Brazilian, with a victory at Iowa and a podium at Kentucky, but also included a bad crash at Indianapolis that kept her from competing in a race the following week in Milwaukee. Before the crash, Beatriz was in the mix for the drivers' championship. Afterward, her title chances were all but dashed.
Still, she remains confident that a move to the IndyCar Series is in her future, possibly the very near future. She's gaining ground in results and recognition, and she's surrounded herself with a talented management team that includes former CART driver Andre Ribeiro, former F3 team owner Augusto Cesario and former Honda Performance Development boss Robert Clarke, who's also guiding Tony Kanaan's career. But landing an IndyCar ride won't be easy for Bia: Very few FIL drivers have made the leap in recent years – fewer still without a Lights championship. Add to that a rough economy, and it's an uphill climb. Nevertheless, Beatriz remains upbeat. She sat down with RACER.com to discuss recent developments.
Q. You've indicated in the past that you want to move up to the IndyCar Series quickly, perhaps as early as next year. Where does that stand at this point in time?
Ana Beatriz: I'm always thinking about it. I wish I were a little bit better in the championship standings to give us more negotiating power to help make it happen, but Andre Ribeiro and Cesario and Robert Clarke have been thinking about it. We haven't decided anything yet, but we're looking at opportunities and understanding what's going to be better for me, and we're waiting to see how the last race turns out. We improved a lot at Sonoma – we hadn't done very well on road courses this season until that race – so that gave us some energy. If we can do well at Homestead, it might help us decide.
Q. So it's promising?
AB: We'll see. It's my second year of Indy Lights, and we'll have a race in Brazil next year that might help us to move up, but we can also see the advantages to staying a third year in Indy Lights. Once the season ends, I think we'll be able to see a really clear idea of what position we're going to work toward.
Q. What's your assessment of the season so far? Obviously there's been some success, but also some disappointment. Overall, does it meet your expectations?
AB: I'm a little bit disappointed. I thought we would be regularly in the top five at all types of tracks – road courses and street courses and ovals. This didn't happen. We had some bad crashes, too. The crash at Indianapolis really set us back in the standings, but we also had some great runs – some podiums and the win at IowAB: This was very good. But I wish I could have had better results. I really expected to be fighting for the championship at this point.
Q. Could you have been in contention had you not missed races?
AB: I don't think so. Crashing at Indy cost us two races and didn't help. But to compete with J.R. (Hildebrand) and (Sebastian) Saavedra and the AFS guys, we needed to take a different approach to start with.
Q. How bad was the crash at Indy? You appeared to be OK after the race, but were there any lingering problems?
AB: That day I wasn't feeling very well. My knee hurt and I couldn't do much exercising that required bending of the knee for about a month after that. My elbow hurt, too, and you can see the scar on my chin. The psychological part of it was harder. Healthy Choice had paid for the season, but we weren't expecting that bad of crash damage. We had to buy a completely new car, so we had to work to get that money. This was a bad thing, but we got some positive from it. I got to meet a lot of people from a lot of different companies both here and in Brazil, so that could help us in the future. I was able to find something positive from a crash as bad as that one.
Q. So the absence from Milwaukee was due to financial reasons and not the injuries?
AB: Yes. We didn't have a car. We didn't have the time to build another car, and the one we had wasn't fixable, so we missed the race.
Q. You didn't have enough in the crash budget and you had to go out and raise money to get another car? That's a hard thing to do.
AB: Yes, definitely, especially in the middle of this economic crisis.
Q. Was there a time when you didn't know if it would happen?
AB: We talked about a lot of things. Andre, Cesario and Robert and I wondered what we should do. Should we step back and wait for next year? But Andre put some personal money into the program to make it happen, to help buy the new car. It was amazing, because when we returned at Iowa, we won the race. It was fantastic.
Q. You seem to have made a name for yourself on ovals, yet that's not your background.
AB: Usually I do well on almost every oval, except for the beginning of the year. At Kansas we were running second until I lost the rear end and almost crashed and finished fourth, and of course Indy wasn't a good weekend. But usually on ovals we run strong. At Kentucky we led the race and finished third. I don't know what it is. I've found my way on ovals. I just need to improve on road courses – that's my background. I really push myself hard because I can't understand some of the results we've had this year on road courses.
Q. Often for drivers from Europe or South America who have a classical road-racing background, the oval racing here is the most difficult part of the equation. You seem to have gotten a feel for it fairly quickly. Does that surprise you at all?
AB: I didn't know what to expect when I came to America, but with a lot of data and background help, I began to understand the ovals. I was able to get the small details that make a difference. It was a great thing. I didn't know what to expect from ovals when I first came here. Fortunately I found it.
Q. Do you feel like you are developing a fan base? There's a lot of attention on Danica Patrick right now; do you feel like you're getting some residual attention because of the focus that's on her?
AB: I think so. American fans are very open to women in racing. I've got a lot of fans who are excited about my career, but it's just developing. Of course, if we were in Indy cars, it would be even bigger. It's just developing, but I think people are getting to know me.
Q. Is the comparison to Danica fair? Is it something you'd rather people wouldn't do?
AB: I don't really mind, really. We're both women who race well and get wins and podiums, so people like to make the comparison. I don't mind, but I don't like it when people come up to me and ask, “Are you the new Danica?” I'm Bia. I'm not Danica. But really, I don't mind the comparisons. I think she's done amazing things for the sport and probably helped me to move up.
Q. Is there any confusion about your name? Everybody around here knows you as Bia, but you're presented to the public as Ana Beatriz. Is there any confusion in that?
AB: Some people who don't know me call me Ana, but then they understand that everybody else calls me Bia. I don't really mind. I answer to both. I'd rather that people call me Bia because it's what I'm used to in Brazil, but I think right now it's getting more clear to people.
Q. Do you ever get confused with Brazilian supermodel Ana Beatriz Barros?
AB: Only by the press. When they start researching me, they Google “Ana Beatriz” and get the model. A lot of people tell me, “Hey, I Googled you and got a beautiful, gorgeous woman wearing Victoria's Secret lingerie.” I have to tell them to Google “Ana Beatriz Indy Lights.” That's where you'll find the normal Bia wearing a white uniform.
Q. What's the most difficult part about attempting to advance to the IndyCar level? Are the barriers primarily financial or are they barriers of opportunity? In other words, which is more of an obstacle – the lack of money or the lack of seats?
AB: The top teams that have money aren't going to hire rookie drivers, so you always have to find financial support to move up. Rafa Matos is blessed because he was able to move up without bringing money, but he had such a successful history in American racing. In his case, it's understandable. But for drivers in Indy Lights, it has yet to be proven that you can move up without great financial support.
Q. It seems to be a matter of seats, too. There are a half-dozen drivers in Lights who are good enough and have solid backing, but there's nowhere to go. There simply aren't enough cars out there.
AB: There aren't enough cars and the teams that have the money and might have an open seat aren't going to give it to a rookie. You have to make your own opportunities, and in order to do that, you have to get sponsorship. You have to be able to work well with sponsors. It's a major thing.
Q. Tell me the story again about the first time you were in a go-kart.
AB: (Laughs) The first time I went to a go-kart school at Interlagos in Sao Paulo, I had taken all the theoretical classes and all of that, but the first time we went out onto the track, I turned the wrong way and started going against the flow of traffic. The course workers stopped me right away and turned me around.
Q. All you wanted to do was race. You didn't care which way you went.
AB: Exactly. I was so excited. I was 7 or 8 years old. It didn't matter which way I went; I just wanted to turn the wheel and have some fun.
Q. Did you know right away that you were good at it?
AB: I think I was a little crazy with it at the beginning. I had to learn to control myself and do it the right way. I was overdriving at first, but with more experience I could see that I had a future in it. But right away, I don't think I really knew what I was doing yet. When people come to me and say, “Oh my god, I know this driver who's 8 years old and he's winning everything,” I say, “Wait until he's 15.” It's so different between those two ages. When you're 15 or 16, you might have a good feel for it, but when you're 8 years old, it's hard to judge.
Q. Who is your racing hero?
AB: Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna.
Q. Not surprising. Tell me how that came about.
AB: I started to race because of them. There was a time when I was 6 or 7 years old that I loved to watch racing on TV. At that time, Emerson was dominating here in America and Senna was dominating in Formula 1. Those guys were my heroes.
Q. Did you ever learn anything technical from watching them?
AB: A little bit. Emerson was so technical and so mental, and Senna was so aggressive. They had different approaches. I never had the chance to meet Ayrton, but I have met Emerson. It was an amazing experience. It was a five-minute conversation, but I learned so much.
Q. What does a season opener in Brazil present to you in terms of exposure or sponsorship?
AB: Hopefully I will be the first Brazilian woman to run in a top series, and if my first race is in Brazil, that makes it even more special. If Andre, Cesario and Robert can manage to find the right team and put together the right sponsors, it would be amazing.
Q. Do you think it's possible that you can put together a one-off for that race?
AB: Yes. If they think it's a good idea, then I want to pursue it.