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Voyager – Sao Paulo or Bust

Our man in the fire suit, Chris Wilson, takes a 200 mph IndyCar cruise through the streets of Sao Paulo. Buckle up, it’s gonna’ be a bumpy ride!

SAO PAULO–I had never been to Brazil before being invited to cover the inaugural Izod IndyCar 300 race in Sao Paulo. In fact, my main cultural references for South America’s largest country were that a lot of supermodels hailed from there, people wore feathery bodysuits at Carnival, and that Brazil inspired the painful waxing sessions I endure right before Speedo season.

But what struck me immeditately after landing in the teeming metropolis of Sao Paulo (pop. 11 million) was that it straddles vastly disparate worlds. During the drive from the airport to my hotel in the Morumbi district, I saw the crumbling, graffiti-scarred shacks of a roadside shantytown, not far from the gated mansions, luxury car dealerships and posh eateries of the leafy Jardins neighborhood. Clearly, I knew where I would be spending most of my time. (Hint: I hate shantytowns.)

Highway traffic was more maddeningly clogged than my digestive tract after gorging at one of the city’s all-you-can-meat churrascarias. The skyline was dominated by countless dreary gray buildings, and if you were up high enough, the dark tendrils of smog hanging over them were disturbingly visible. It was clear why tourists prefer the sun, sand, and scantily-clad bodies of Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo’s ugly industrial sprawl. Still, this seemingly cheerless mega-city had its highlights. My favorite meal was the cashew-crusted robalo fish, crabmeat patties, and vatapa shrimp stew at the seafood-centric Capim Santo (Rua Ministro Rocha Azevedo 471), a trendy joint in Jardins featuring a garden of lush mango trees. The Sunday samba night at O do Borogodo (21 Rua Horacio Lane) in the boho-chic Vila Madalena neighborhood, was a wonderfully sweaty dance party where a raucous young crowd boogied to a live band and guzzled 40′s of local Brahma beer. And downtown, at the 135,000-square-foot Mercado Municipal (Rua da Cantareira 306), I watched a butcher carve a pig carcass, sampled strange tropical juices, and took perverse pleasure in the grand old market’s funky stench of fresh fish, hanging meats and giant wheels of cheese.

But eventually I had to extract myself from those earthy aromas and head to the Indy 300′s winding, 2.6-mile street course. A sold-out crowd of 60,000 fans packed the grandstands under a broiling sun to watch big-name drivers like Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, and Danica Patrick vie for supremacy. A few hours before the race, I headed for the pits, where I would soon blast off on the fastest ride of my life: a lap in a $650,000 IndyCar.

I zipped into a fire suit and got strapped into the low-slung speed machine. The car’s crew wisely declined to let me pilot the powerful road beast, and instead put me in the back of a specially modified, two-seater helmed by veteran driver Davey Hamilton. They wrapped a flame-retardant cloth around my face and snapped my helmet visor down. As the engine started rumbling, I hoped the tinted glass would obscure my mouth if I started shrieking like an overexcited little girl at a Jonas Brothers concert.

I was told the racecar could hit speeds of 200 mph, and I indeed felt pinned to my seat during the exhilarating straight-away. What I remember most was the deafening buzz of the 650 hp engine vibrating my left eardrum like a giant hornet was trapped inside. Thankfully, it was all over in less than five minutes…and I didn’t even soil the pants of my racing suit!

The Indy 300 itself was pretty exciting, marked by some early spin-outs, a delay caused by a flash rain storm, and a come-from-behind victory by an Australian driver named Will Power. I watched most of it in an air-conditioned luxury box while swilling multiple caipirinhas. Hurtling in a race car at white-knuckled speeds was an unforgettable rush, but this, dear readers, was where I truly felt at home.

- Chris Wilson
- photos: Paul Costello

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