September 11 stirs the emotions like few other days on the calendar. As Americans, we tend to get caught up in the patriotism and the emotions of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
Racing has its own form of memorials on Sept. 11, in the form of two very talented drivers who we lost on that day many years ago. Ronnie Peterson died Sept. 11, 1978, and Gonzalo Rodriguez passed on Sept. 11, 1999.
Peterson (pictured), better known as “Super Swede,” was a World Champion-in-waiting in the 1970s. His stint at March to open his career, including a runner-up finish in the 1971 World Championship, led to an opportunity with Colin Chapman’s all-conquering Team Lotus, where he won 10 Grands Prix.
As Mario Andretti’s teammate in 1978, Peterson won twice and entered the Italian Grand Prix just more than a race win back. But the tragic crash just after the start of the race, where Peterson’s Lotus went in several different directions and caught fire, was enough to claim his life. He died in hospital the day after the race, aged 34. A tribute video compiled on the 30-year anniversary, five years ago, is below.
Rodriguez, a Uruguayan driver, starred in 1999 with a famous victory in the F3000 race at Monaco with the lesser-rated Astromega team. His performances caught the eye of Roger Penske, who invited him to America to drive a second CART Champ Car at Detroit and Laguna Seca in the second half of the season.
At Detroit, Penske announced Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore would be his new drivers for 2000, but still wanted to provide Rodriguez an opportunity to showcase himself to other team owners. A point on debut with a 12th-place finish was a very good result, indeed.
Come Laguna, though, Rodriguez had an accident in practice with a stuck open throttle at the notorious Corkscrew corner. His car front-flipped over the barrier and catch-fencing and landed upside down on the other side. Rodriguez was pronounced dead from a basilar skull fracture.
That was a particularly gut-wrenching time for Penske, whose other future driver, Moore, was killed later that year in the season finale at the California Speedway. Rodriguez was on several teams’ shortlists for drives in 2000. Sadly, neither was able to fulfill their potential in the new century.