Adrian Fernandez loves camaraderie and competition of Legends Trophy

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At the start of the Legends Trophy second-round opener in virtual Malaysia last week, Adrian Fernandez’s No. 40 Brabham BT44B got tagged.

Fernandez managed to reach Turn 1, where his red and green car was nailed again yet soldiered on — until the back straightaway.

A third shunt there completely destroyed his ride, which completed half a lap after the green flag.

A wave of aggravation washed over Fernandez, who has grown accustomed to feeling in virtual racing the same emotions he once felt as a world-class championship driver. The typically mild-mannered and reserved veteran of IndyCar, sports cars and NASCAR sometimes has turned to his wife, Priscila, and thrown his hands up in anger and resignation.

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“I got so pissed,” Fernandez said with a laugh in a recent interview. “You get so frustrated, you get really mad. It’s amazing because you put so many hours on it, and suddenly someone hits you or you make a mistake. It’s quite serious.”

But just like the real world, luck often can turn on a dime.

In the second race of the doubleheader, the field was inverted. Fernandez started on pole, staved off a first-corner challenge from British touring cars champion Jason Plato and slowly increased the gap in a wire-to-wire victory.

“I was really excited to win that,” he said. “Look at all the guys we are racing! To be able to race again with the same guys I used to race a long time ago and a lot of friends and all these legends is fantastic.”

An 11-time winner in Indy cars, Fernandez’s career heyday was in CART during the mid- to late 1990s, and he’s competing against many of the same names (Emerson Fittipaldi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran, Max Papis, Tony Kanaan) as well as a host of other champions from various racing disciplines.

Though he had two simulators housed in his personal museum and office in Miami, Fernandez raced only locally against other retired drivers.

The Mexico City native hardly raced online before being invited to the Legends Trophy, which was created in late March.

He got some help on the basics from AllInSports, a simulator company started by F1 engineers, but he initially struggled with a delay between what happened with his hands and feet and in the simulation. Fernandez modified his gear to be more precise.

He also upgraded his view from a TV-style display to a “pure gamer screen.”

Adrian Fernandez gets emotional while unveiling a plaque honoring him at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Sept. 20, 2016 in his native Mexico City (Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images)

Kanaan (who has a love-hate relationship with sim racing) provided a computer contact that Fernandez used to invest in new gear. Montoya, whose hand-eye coordination is peerless, also offered some tips.

“Obviously Juan Pablo is way ahead of all of us,” Fernandez said. “So he helps me a lot. He doesn’t care to give you what he does. I tried changing my equipment like that, and it was amazing how precise it is now.”

Fernandez has paid the goodwill forward. He spent 30 minutes this week advising Papis, who also is finding pace while improving his equipment.

“At the end of the day, it’s about having fun,” Fernandez said. “If we get everybody faster, the more fun the races will be. What’s the point of being 4 seconds faster?

“So that camaraderie is very, very, very nice, and everybody helps each other.”

Fernandez said the most difficult part of sim racing is the reference points, particularly on unfamiliar tracks such as Malaysia and its many blind corners

He practices for two hours daily to get acclimated to the rig and the new layouts. The Legends Trophy permits only 100 laps of practice with the assigned setup (tracks are chosen and announced a few days ahead of each Saturday race).

“I’m getting better,” Fernandez said. “It was really good to win Malaysia. It’s amazing how intense it is. The concentration is more because it’s so much more difficult. Everything is virtual. You don’t have the real feel of the car. You look at the track in person, and it’s not the same, even though the graphics are unbelievable.

“To be consistent, the Brabham car doesn’t handle very well. Just to stay on track without making mistakes is quite a challenge.”

Adrian Fernandez celebrates winning at the Indy Racing League event Oct. 3, 2004 at California Speedway (Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

He has singled out four series standouts: two-time Indy 500 winner Montoya (who also has won in F1, IMSA and NASCAR); F1 and sports car ace Jan Magnussen (who also ran F1 and IndyCar); five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Emmanuelle Pirro and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button.

“My aim is to be as fast as those guys,” Fernandez said. “They know the tricks and are extremely good at it. Anytime you push the throttle, the car wants to spin. It’s just not stable. That’s what makes it very difficult, and these guys are very good at it.”

Fernandez, who led with 10 laps remaining in the 2004 Indy 500 won by Buddy Rice, has tried out his old ride, too.

He recently took a 2020 NTT IndyCar Dallara for a spin at Laguna Seca Raceway and Road America. He enjoyed the new aeroscreen model but “if we were driving the Indy cars, they’re much easier to drive (by) 100 times. Because they do what they’re supposed to do. You can crash if you push it, but (with the Brabham), you crash and you don’t know why.”

That’s what made the competitive sim debut of four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel at Malaysia an unexpected treat.

“I have a lot of respect for (Vettel),” Fernandez said. “It was very humble of him to get into this race with these guys without having practiced in a while in a car that’s not that easy and to just jump on the weekend knowing he wasn’t going to be able to be strong.

“He was very humble in his comments, and I take my hat off to him. A lot of people say, ‘I’m ready to win.’ Sebastian just jumped in, had fun and made nice comments in the (driver) chat.”

Fernandez remains as humble as he was during a career from modest middle-class beginnings in Mexico. He was known as a business-savvy driver who signed and kept many sponsors for years, including with the team he started.

Adrian Fernandez in the 2012 6 Hours of Silverstone in the World Endurance Championship (Drew Gibson/Getty Images).

After Fernandez Racing’s run in CART and IndyCar ended when corporate sponsorship dried up post-2001 recession, he extended his career several years by turning a NASCAR Xfinity one-off with Lowe’s into a full-time deal for the American Le Mans Series.

After winning the 2009 championship in LMP2, the ramifications of the Great Recession of 2008 reduced Lowe’s funding and led to a partial schedule with Aston Martin Racing the next three seasons.

Fernandez worries about a repeat of the trend for the racing industry during the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Fernandez Racing in essence disappeared because of two different crises,” said Fernandez, whose final 24 Hours of Le Mans ended on the LM GTE podium in 2012. “That’s what I’m afraid is happening now. There’s a lot of good teams that took a lot of time to build up to where they are now. But unfortunately, circumstances happen in the world like what happened to us two times. That really prevents some teams to continue.

“That happened to us and was very sad because our team was very, very good.”

Having started a Mexican restaurant (Cantina Catrina is on the sidepods of his Legends Trophy cars) last November in Miami that had been doing well until the COVID-19 shutdown, Fernandez feels the pinch of the pandemic, too.

But with Priscila three months’ pregnant as he enjoys a healthy retirement, Fernandez relishes the views in his museum (which isn’t open to the public but available for tours from the owner).

The trophies, cars (a 2001 Reynard and the Panoz from the 2004 Indy 500) and collectibles reflect the sacrifices were worth it now that he has more time to enjoy with family (he also has two children, Valentina and Niko, from a previous marriage).

He is content to have “accomplished everything I have dreamed” and now gets a bonus in sim racing.

“At 57, it’s just fantastic to be able to (race) again,” Fernandez said. “I’ve loved racing all my life. So now to be able to do (the Legends Trophy) and be here with my wife expecting a baby, it’s just fantastic to be able to still be able to do what I used to have as a passion and love.

“I had it all my life. I still have it. I’m working at it.”

Adrian Fernandez holds the Mexican flag after winning the Rio 200 on April 30, 2000 (ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew, personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She initially was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing — but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving,” Grisham said. “It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”