Brazilian racer Cristiano da Matta has returned to the cockpit for the first time since his serious accident in 2006 after joining the GAINSCO team for a Grand-Am Rolex Series test in Texas.
da Matta was left in a coma after his Champ Car hit a deer during testing at Road America more than 19 months ago, with the former F1 racer undergoing surgery on a number of occasions before starting the long road back to full fitness.
Although his first scheduled at the new Eagles Canyon circuit was washed out by rain, da Matta was then able to hit the track on Thursday and Friday and admitted it was good to be back behind the wheel of a race car.
"After what I have been through to get back to this point, what's two more days?" da Matta said. "After the test, I realised 'I still know how to do this, I remember this very well.' The biggest thing I felt after the test was just a sense of relief. For me, it was a big, big relief, bigger than big. Even though I had opinions and approval from the best doctors and I felt great in go-karts and even on video games as far as my skills, I still had that last little question mark on my mind.
“That worried me quite a lot. After being away for so long, and driving being my work and something I like, I was concerned that I would not be able to do it as well."
The mid-week rain storms left the circuit wet and muddy but the track's operations crew did a good job getting the track ready and consistently improved throughout Thursday and Friday.
"Even driving a new car for the first time, that was something that I was able to quickly do, to figure out how it worked, what I need to do, just everything with getting familiar with a new car," da Matta continued. "I have the same type of feeling I have always had before and I know exactly what I have to do to get better. The lap times were there and consistent. It was all there for me.”
Regular driver Alex Gurney, who took the first laps in the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley in Thursday's less-than-ideal conditions picked up on the significance of the test for the entire da Matta family and the GAINSCO team.
"It was a special moment for everybody on the team to see Cristiano take to the race track again after his accident from a year and a half ago," he said. "Both his Mom and Dad were there and you could see how much it meant to them. It was great to get to know Cristiano and his family a little bit better these past couple of days. After a few outings on the race track, it also became obvious to all of us that he had lost none of his speed. If and when a deal comes together, he will make a great addition to this team."