CONCORD, N.C. — A Hickory Motor Speedway track champion has competed in Formula One.
It’s a bit bizarre when one thinks about it, but it’s true, nonetheless.
Pietro Fittipaldi, who claimed the 2011 limited late model track title at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway and is the grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi, made his Formula One debut Dec. 6 at the Bahrain Int’l Circuit, driving for the Haas F1 Team.
Fittipaldi replaced regular Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who miraculously escaped serious injury in a spectacular crash on the opening lap of the previous week’s Bahrain Grand Prix that saw Grosjean’s car split in half and burst into flames.
While Fittipaldi’s finish that day was unimpressive — he qualified 20th and finished 17th — his road to Formula One was certainly unique.
After spending several years racing karts, Fittipaldi initially set his sights on a career in stock car racing. He drove for Lee Faulk Racing, the late model program run by the father-and-son duo of Lee and Michael Faulk, at Hickory Motor Speedway during the 2011 season.
Fittipaldi won four features and claimed the limited late model track championship. The following season, he graduated to the late model class and finished fourth in the standings with a single victory.
That’s when Fittipaldi’s career went in a different direction.
He received an opportunity to go open-wheel racing in Europe, courtesy a relationship with Escudería Telmex. The offer was too good to pass up, especially since Fittipaldi didn’t have the sponsorship he needed to climb the NASCAR ladder.
“They heard I was winning races at Hickory and Hickory was really competitive back then,” Fittipaldi said of officials at Escudería Telmex. “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.”
Despite the drastic change in race cars, Fittipaldi continued to turn heads by winning multiple races and championships. He eventually returned to America in 2018 on a part-time basis after landing a deal to join Dale Coyne Racing for select NTT IndyCar Series events.
One of those races was supposed to be the Indianapolis 500, but a few weeks before the race he broke both his legs in a crash while racing in the World Endurance Championship at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
Despite missing the Indianapolis 500, Fittipaldi had already turned a few heads thanks to his success in Europe. That led to the Haas F1 Team signing him as its test and reserve driver prior to the 2019 season.
That put Fittipaldi in position to potentially race in Formula One should the proper circumstances arise. Fast-forward to Grosjean’s fiery crash, where he suffered burns to his hands that effectively ended his season with two races remaining.
The Haas F1 Team called on Fittipaldi to fill the void.
“I’m happy to have finished my first grand prix — that was the goal,” Fittipaldi said after the Sakhir Grand Prix. “I had a good battle at the end with Jack (Aitken) and I had Kevin (Magnussen) in front of me as well. It was good to get some action in there. My pace was quite good from midrace through to the end.
“It’s very difficult nowadays to make it to Formula One, but I can say I’ve finished a Formula One race. I’m thankful to the team for the opportunity.”
What does the future hold for the 24-year-old Fittipaldi? That’s a good question.
The Haas F1 Team has announced its driver roster for next year, which includes Russian Nikita Mazepin and Formula Two champion Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher.
It’s unknown if Fittipaldi will return to the team in a test and reserve role or if he’ll move on to another opportunity.
Whatever the future holds for him, Fittipaldi will always have the rare distinction of having won a track championship at Hickory and competed in a Formula One race.
It’s a scenario not likely to be repeated anytime soon.