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Car Racing Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  CART

Car Racing Media Conference

Emerson Fittipaldi
July 31, 1996


Memorial Hospital

MS. GONZALEZ: I just heard that Mr. Fittipaldi would like us to start with the press conference. He is getting last minute instructions and starting the process of his discharge from the hospital and he wants us to start with the conference with Dr. Green, Dr. Eismont, Dr. Olvey. I just want to introduce some people around the table. I may not have all the names, but I will try. This is Darryl Gwynn, you probably remember him when he was injured in a similar situation. Dr. Frank Eismont, Dr. Stephen Olvey, Dr. Barth Green. This is Mark Bonaconti whose father is the -- started Dr. Green helping this Miami Project to cure paralysis. To his left is Mr. Ira Clark, the President of the Public Health Trust and CEO for Jackson Memorial Hospital. And to his left is Dr. Gerald Kaiser, he is the Vice President of General Affairs. I would like to just introduce them to you and have you entertain questions with the gentlemen. And Mr. Fittipaldi will be here momentarily.

Q. How long do you think?

MS. GONZALEZ: He will be here in a few minutes he said. He said to please start the conference. We are leaving room for him and his wife to come in. This is his brother, I believe.

DR. GREEN: Shall we start? We are going to start and then Emerson will be down in a few minutes. Is that right? We can just make a statement that on behalf of the medical team - and you've met everybody - and the fans of Emerson and colleagues and supporters we're very pleased to report that he's going home today. And as in everything else he does, he's breaking a record by going home in record time after such a major injury and major surgery. He will be down here in just a few minutes. If there are any questions that you have from the representatives of the University or the Miami Project or his surgical team or his friends, please let us know, and family.

Q. You are saying he is breaking a record. What would be the average time for him -- for an injury like that for anybody to go home.

DR. GREEN: Oh, probably a week, not a few days. At least a week.

Q. Excuse me, Dr. Green. He just walked in, so we want to let you know he is walking. (EMERSON FITTIPALDI ENTERS CONFERENCE ROOM)

DR. GREEN: Do you want me to start? I guess I don't have to introduce this man who should be lying in an Intensive Care Unit or an operating room, but has just walked in the room. I just told them that you are used to breaking records and you did another one today and we are very proud of that. We would like to take some blood from Emerson and inject it in a lot of our patients for motivation and speedy recovery, but we feel -- we are not sure if it was the food he didn't like or whatever, but here we are... In record time again. Emerson, would you like to make a statement?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Well, I think my statement first, you know, I want to thank the rescue team, Indy Car, Steve Olvey, Terry Trammell and Rick Timms who took me out of the car and made me survive the crash, took me to the local hospital, from racing track and then the first one at Jackson, then Jackson to another and then make the decision to move me here to Miami. The only thing I can say was I was born again on July 28th. I was very lucky to have all these very good people around me and it is an incredible coincidence that I always been comparative in help with the Miami Project and then, you know, the circumstances of life, I need the Miami Project to help me. Dr. Green who with Terry Trammell and all his team made the fantastic surgery with my vertebra. It was very close. I could be paralyzed. He did a fantastic job. I am here talking to you guys, walking and starting my new life. I just have to thank God and, you know, everybody on the team and the effort that they put behind me. I was very, very lucky. I have very good people around me. Thank you. My wife took all the pressure. It is not easy. You know, my family, my kids. I remember three years ago when Steve took over the Intensive Care Unit here. Steve is a friend from Indianapolis. And he send someone to show the new intensive care unit, you know, I walked around the new intensive care unit, and I told Steve, and he said, "look at this. Look at that." I told Steve, "I don't want to like too much because possible day I can come here." And it happened. I am here and they took fantastic care of me. Everybody at Jackson Memorial Hospital has been fantastic, as being an example of the education, professionally and I am very lucky. Thank you very much everybody.

Q. Mr. Fittipaldi, has this done anything to your will to get back in the car and drive, has this affected you in that way or are you walking in here and wanting to walk out soon and get right back into your car.

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: I think I have a lot of reflections before I going back and sit again in my racing car. I think the values of life are going to change for me now.

Q. You talked a lot about the people. I am curious, there have been so many improvements made in the cars that you drive for safety reasons, how important do you think those were in allowing you to survive the way you have with this accident?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: I see -- you know, I went through from 1970 to when I started Grand Prix race in Europe to 1996, 26 years of transition of safety and the cars now are much, much, much safer than used to be. And by Steve's calculation, my impact was about -- I suffer about hundred G's. And there is no way few years ago a driver could survive. That shows how good are the cars now, the equipment, the helmets. I was still conscious after the crash with the impact of a hundred G's and all the safety equipment. Thanks to people like Steve that works with information from Grand Prix racing, from Indy Car racing, from all over the world, and they have a seminar last year of safety here. Right, Steve?

DR. OLVEY: That's right.

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: In Miami there was International Seminar about safety operation and that's how much improve safety of racing. You know, the Penske car, there is one thing Roger Penske always be cautious mind about building car because he was a racing driver himself. I never have any worry or concern about driving a Penske car not being safe car, but the other way, Nigel Bennett is who designed the car improved the string of safety. Thanks to everything I am here alive. As being incredible transition 26 years that I view myself and I'm lucky to be here.

Q. Mr. Fittipaldi, you mentioned you have a lot of reflections that you would have to go through considering whether to get back into racing. Reflections about what? What are some of the things you need to work through to come to that decision?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Well, I think the value of family, the kids. I told my wife yesterday, when I was running out of oxygen in the cockpit, the first thing I was thinking of was the five kids I have. That never that occurred before, not because I am irresponsible, but because I never was in extreme situation like that, that they come in my mind during the accident. I think there are good things I can do in the future. I am going to dedicate myself more time and effort to the Miami Project because they are working hard. Dr. Green is one of the tops in the world. I mean, he is well known all over the world, his team of people, and I think the research and the investment, the money that Miami Project can get in the future is going to make what's this hat means, stand up and walk. And I hope Darryl and everyone here is going to walk some day. It will happen. It is just a question to know when it is going to happen. You have to put a lot of effort behind. That's the new reflection of my life that I didn't have before

Q. Emerson, excuse me. Have you decided for sure whether you will race again or is there a possibility that you may not?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: I think most looks like I am not going to race again. I will not race again.

Q. It looks like you will not race again?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: No, because I think I had a good message this weekend.

Q. You had a good message?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: That I should stop.

Q. So you are pretty much 100 percent sure or...

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: I am not 100 percent sure because I need some other reflection, but I got a very strong message from the Lord. I think everything in life has time. I haven't made the final decision, but I believe alot in God and I believe things happen in life for a reason.

Q. How are you feeling physically, Emerson? Just -- I know they asked you that in Spanish, just what kind of pains do you have or how are you feeling right now?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Well, you know, I feel all bruised. The neck feels good, the vertebra, just I still cannot drive. She is going to drive me home today. (indicting wife) (LAUGHTER)

Q. I don't want to belabor the point, but we were kind of walking inside the room at a certain sentence, you are at this point feeling that you are going to give up -- that you can give up racing, that this is the sign for you to stop?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: It is a sign to stop, but I have not made the final decision yet.

Q. But for the first time in your career those thoughts are entering your head seriously?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Yes. Yes.

Q. Emerson, if you are not going to race, what are you going to do with your life once you recover from your injury?

MR. BONACONTI: He can do whatever he wants.

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: At least be home more often with my wife.

Q. How much did you have to do with the decision for Emerson not to race again and how relieved are you that these thoughts are --

MRS. FITTIPALDI: No, I never interfere in Emerson's decision. I think I have to respect whatever he is going to decide. I always been on his side. I always be there for him. It is up to him. If he decides something, he knows I'll be there.

Q. Are you happy about this?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Very happy. You cannot...(LAUGHTER)

Q. Will you spend most of your time on Key Biscayne now? Is that where you are going to spend the majority?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Yes, I hope so.

Q. That is where you will recuperate?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Yes. Because I moved to Key Biscayne five years ago and I haven't spend a lot of time there.

MRS. FITTIPALDI: We used to spend most of the time flying, now you are going to spend in Key Biscayne.

Q. How much more will you do? You said you want to work more with the project.

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Well, I think I am going to spend much more time home and much more time in the office, family.

Q. Right. Also I wanted to ask Barth, is this man's body very special for a 49 year old or is that -- I don't know, is he like most people?

DR. GREEN: No. There is no doubt that he is an extraordinary athlete. If he wasn't in the condition he was, he would have been wheeled in here today and not stood up and walked because he has lost a tremendous amount of blood. The rest of us would be lying flat, even to stand up. He doesn't have a millimeter of fat in his body.

Q. He was talking something about a 100 -- I didn't understand this, so 100 G's -- what did he mean?

DR. GREEN: That's a measurement of force and it is something that a jet -- you always here jet pilots have to withstand when they take off and the force that he withstood is really not compatible with survival. I think that's the point.

DR. OLVEY: They used to think that the human body couldn't withstand more than 50 G's and we have shown with crash recorders that we have in the racing cars that you can tolerate more than that, but this was, by our estimates, around 100 or a little bit over a hundred G's crash, which five years ago was thought to be phenomenal and not survivable. The other thing I would like to say is we had Emerson in here about two years ago, I believe, to test him cardiovascularly and to test his fitness. And he compared very favorably with the lead athletes in their late twenties, early thirties that compete in the Olympics in some of the endurance sports in the Olympics, so he is in tremendous physical condition. I would like to say one other thing. We have the doctors sitting up here, but behind us are the nursing team that took care of Emerson. (APPLAUSE)

DR. OLVEY: They honestly -- they deserve as much if not more credit than the doctors because they spend most of the time with the patient, I'll tell you.

Q. Dr. Green, or any of you doctors, can you explain in more detail about the injury, maybe using that model and show us exactly what happened?

DR. GREEN: Sure. Dr. Eismont, if he comes over here, he and I were going to present Emerson, with the help of Mr. Clark, with the instrumentations we actually have planted in his neck. This is -- you want to show them? This is the plate that's holding the front of his spine together. It's a titanium. And these are the screws that are in the -- go through the plate into the vertebral body. This is the first time we've ever given these as a -- I don't know what -- trophy. And then these are the cables that are in the back of the neck that wrap through and around the elements to reconstruct the back of the spine along with his own bone and bone graph from our tissue bank, so these are some unusual souvenirs. (LAUGHTER). If Dr. Eismont wants to comment on that. Why don't you show them, Frank, what we did.

DR. EISMONT: This is the front of the spine, the back of the spine. The primary mechanism of injury was one where the spine was bent forward like this, and at the base of the neck at C7, the vertebra was crushed and there it was probably reduced to less than half of its normal height. When it is crushed like that, it has a tendency to explode backwards. And when it does so, it pushes down the center here. The yellow represents the spinal cord, so when it squashes out, it goes into the spinal canal. And in Mr. Fittipaldi's case, it has probably taken up more than half of the spinal canal, and his spinal cord was really draped over it. So the amount of extra room that he had was probably less than a millimeter I would estimate. So at the same time that the front of the spine crushes down, the back of the spine opens up and all the ligaments back here are torn. So the purpose of this surgery was to take out the vertebra from the front, take the pressure off the spinal cord, restabilize it with the plates and screws that Dr. Green showed you, some bone from the bone bank to restore the height and then that incision was closed. Another incision was made on the back of the neck and those cables were placed through these spinous processes to restore the strength of the ligaments that were destroyed at the time of the accident. So the whole purpose of it is to take the pressure off the spinal cord and the nerves and to restore the ability to provide stability again in the spine. So the long and short of it is his spine right now should be about as strong as it was before the accident or very close to it.

DR. GREEN: We have 100,000 mile warranty on this, but actually Darryl Gwynn who is at the end of the table, the same team reconstructed his spine and he's got about 25,000 miles on the new job. Darryl crashed at about, what, close to 300 --

DARRYL GWYNN: Yes, 240 miles an hour.

DR. GREEN: - miles an hour and shattered his spine. He didn't have that millimeter, but his injuries are at the same level of Emerson's and he's -- he and Emerson have become good friends and both are great supporters of the Miami Project. I don't know if Darryl want to --

DARRYL GWYNN: What seems to be ironic in this whole thing is Emerson was a supporter of the Miami Project before his accident just as I was. You guys are pulling us through here and making us big supporters of the Miami Project both before and after our injury and we are proud to be associated with you group of guys and gals that help reconstruct us and hopefully make us walk again.

Q. Emerson, what would you like your fans to do for the Miami Project?

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: Well, I think now, I think motor race, I hope I can take the lead on that and motor race worldwide should make effort to help the Miami Project and they'll be charge of me and Ralph Sanchez was visiting me last night and I can announce by example next year the Gala Grand Prix for the Miami Grand Prix in Homestead will be charity for the Miami Project. It was already decided last night with Ralph it's just the beginning of many things. (APPLAUSE)

DR. GREEN: We have -- I think Mark Bonaconti who is the Ambassador of the Miami Project has an announcement and a presentation.

MR. BONACONTI: Well, as a personal friend and fan of Emerson's for many years, I was never so nervous as I was last Sunday when I watched the accident myself. It is almost a miracle to have Emerson walk in this room today when I've seen so many cases of it being the other way around. And I've heard that 95 percent of the people that have an injury like Emerson's end up being paralyzed, so it is truly a miracle to see my friend come in here today. He has been by my side and supported me ever since my injury and I'm just so grateful and so thankful to be able to offer our help back to Emerson, Dr. Green, Dr. Olvey, Dr. Eismont, Dr. Kaiser, everyone at Jackson, we are just so happy to have you here. We love you and we are just glad to have you on our team. Thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)

DR. GREEN: Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: We are going to work together, more than ever.

DR. GREEN: Thank you very much everybody. Thank you.



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