Former Champ Car champion Cristiano da Matta has driven a racing car for the first time since suffering critical head injuries in a testing accident at Elkhart Lake more than 19 months ago.
The 34-year-old Brazilian successfully tested a GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing GrandAm at Eagles Canyon in Texas last week, and could now partner former PKV Champ Car teammate Jimmy Vasser in a second BSR Pontiac Riley at Laguna Seca in May.
Da Matta, who suffered a subdural hematoma after hitting a deer while testing his RuSport Champ Car in August 2006, spent nearly two months in hospital in recovery.
Since then his rehabilitation has included go-kart racing and mountain-biking, but until the GrandAm test he had not driven a racing car in anger since his accident.
"The biggest thing I felt today was just a sense of relief," da Matta said in an interview for SpeedTV.com after the test. "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 the test, I realised 'I still know how to do this. I remember this very well'.
"I feel lighter now. It was worrying me more than I thought. And for my dad, it was even bigger. The way I saw my dad when we finished the test, it was a big relief for him too. This test changed everything."
Da Matta was pleased with his performance in the car and found that all the old instincts came back quickly.
And despite having never driven a GrandAm prototype before, da Matta felt at home in the cockpit.
"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," he said.
"It was all there for me. 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 consistently."
The opportunity for da Matta to drive the GrandAm championship-winning car came through Vasser, who was not only a former rival but a close friend, and team owner Bob Stallings admitted he hoped to team them up as soon as possible in the series.
"All my drivers come from the same place—they're really great at what they do and they all came out of open-wheel racing, so they share similar experiences," he said.
"But the chemistry between Jimmy Vasser and Cristiano is incredible; they're great friends and I'm really looking forward to seeing those two guys get in the car together at the Laguna Seca race.
"Both guys know the racetrack very, very well. In fact, I the last time Cristiano was there in Champ Car, he won the race. I really hope we can get their sponsorship secured."