Elite athletes are competitive by nature, even when taking part in an event outside their chosen sport, and veteran IndyCar driver Vitor Meira is no exception.
But when Meira competes in the the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3 - his first time doing the 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run of a full Ironman competition - this Saturday, Nov. 13, in Clearwater, Fla., he's just as likely to be watching the rest of the 1,500-strong field.
"This is the world championship, where the best get together and go for it. I'm really excited to join them and at least be part of it," said Meira in a phone interview late last week from his home in Miami. "You know when people go to the racetrack, and get mixed up with the drivers and get all excited? That's going to be me at the Ironman. I'm going to be mixed up with them and I'm going to be looking at them, star-struck."
Meira, who took part in a pair of half-Ironmans earlier this year, has set a personal goal of between 4 hours, 30 minutes and 4:45 for completing the world championship.
Although he's taken part in a lot of triathlons, saying he really enjoys the different aspects of training required -swimming is his least favorite, saying "I think it's the same for 90 percent of triathletes ... swimming is the obligation, the rest is pleasure" - the training became an important part of his rehabilitation after breaking two vertebrae in his lower back in a crash during the 2009 Indianapolis 500.
Meira avoided surgery but the crash still brought his season to an end. As he began rehab and working his way back toward being able to race again, Meira found himself outwardly fit but not ready to get back into a racecar.
"I started to get healthier and healthier, and when you get 80 or 90 percent in the healing process, you don't feel any pain or anything," Meira said. "But in order to drive the car, you have to be ready to crash again, if it comes to it. And that's why I couldn't drive for a long time; for like six months I was out of racing because I couldn't crash again - my bones weren't solid enough."
Like any other elite athlete, Meira's competitive spirit needed an outlet and his rehab regimen was able to provide it. Meira poured his time and energy into triathlon training: running, biking and even swimming, which he called "awesome for my back."
"I don't know how to do anything, without trying to be competitive at the very least," Meira said.
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Meira returned to the IndyCar Series fulltime in 2010, racing for the team of the legendary AJ. Foyt. He started the season on the podium in his home country of Brazil and Meira finished the year No. 12 in the series points after wrapping up the season finale at Homestead-Miami with his sixth top-10. Although it was a solid season for Meira and the team, both are looking for better things in 2011.
"I want more consistency, that's where we lacked (in 2010) - we had some awesome races and some awful races," Meira said. "The ovals, mile and half and shorter and also the street courses, I think we've got it down. ... Road courses, we're lacking a lot but I think we're going to improve."
"We don't want to finish the season 12th, everybody is there to win," he continued. "But it was the best result the team has had in seven years, so it shows we're making progress.
With five of his six top-10s in 2010 coming on ovals, and as a driver who has finished as the runner up twice at Indianapolis, Meira's choice for a replacement venue for the recently cancelled race at Edmonton should surprise no one.
"If I had an option, I would go back to Nazareth; I like Nazareth, we always did well there and it's a tough track," Meira said. "To be really honest, and I've always said this, I think the series needs at least 50 percent of the races on ovals. ... that's where the soul of IndyCar is, I believe."
Regardless of the venue - an oval, road/street course or an Ironman competition - you can count on Meira to put forth the maximum effort.
"Vitor gives 110 percent all the time. He is hustling all the time, even when the car isn't 100 percent," said Foyt in Meira's biography on the team's website, www.foytracing.com. "Sometimes that got him into trouble because it's hard to carry these cars, but I like his attitude. ... He has the focus, drive and talent that separate the good drivers from the great ones"
Hearing such praise from IndyCar's winningest driver clearly pleases Meira, but the man doesn't seem capable of resting on his laurels.
"I'm glad he said that, and I think that's why I'm still employed," Meira said with a small laugh. "Hearing A.J. say that means something. If I give 110 percent, he gives 120, every time. I'm happy he said that, but we're so lucky to be in a racecar, and in the situation we're in, that it's not fair to get there and not give 110 percent. That's my philosophy."