Author: Littlefield, Brad
Date published: March 22, 2013
Sidnei Frigo is in a class of three Top Fuel rookies who have begun the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series by qualifying in the first two events of the season. Even with the other two, Brittany Force and Leah Pruett, being promising young stars with significant fanfare, Frigo has managed to make a name for himself early. From a country not typically associated with drag racing, Brazilian Frigo built his Artivinco Racing team from scratch and made his presence felt at the O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries by running a 3.85 during the final qualifying session to make it the quickest field in NHRA history.
The 41-year-old driver from São Paulo is nicknamed "Grandão," which translates to "Big Guy." He is devoted to his family, his business, and drag racing, and he has been successful in all three facets. Artivinco is a large company founded by his late father 40 years ago that manufactures cardboard boxes for packaging and paper plates with an emphasis on environmental responsibility.
Frigo faces geographical and language barriers, along with the other known challenges of fielding a Professional operation, in the highly competitive Top Fuel category. His efforts thus far have gone a long way toward earning respect in the U.S. and bringing awareness to the sport in Brazil, where he is building the state-of-the-art facility Sao Paulo Int'l Raceway.
"I'm very proud to be able to represent my country in the NHRA and all the Brazilians who fell in love with it," said Frigo. "There are hundreds of thousands of them. Unfortunately, drag racing doesn't have the same value in Brazil as in the United States or the same media presence, but with my help, we want to show to you that Brazil isn't just soccer."
Speaking the same language
Getting to know Frigo was an interesting process. As expected, Portuguese is his first language. He speaks and understands English fairly well, though the fact that he doesn't have complete mastery of it causes a man who already has a quiet demeanor to seem a bit hesitant to jump into conversation. Casual interviews at the first two events of the year went well, but speaking over the phone to answer follow-up questions was difficult with cellular reception and the ambient noises from inside the Artivinco plant further complicating matters.
Email quickly became the preferred source of communication. Modern technology such as Google's online translation services was helpful in researching Frigo on his website and in articles written in Brazilian media, and I suspect he had some software to translate answers to my questions since they were submitted in both English and Portuguese. I fired offabout 20 questions in my first email, and a potentially agonizing process became easy with Frigo's friendliness and participation.
I had spoken with Frigo's crew chief, Donnie Bender, over the phone, and he seemed interested to hear how Frigo and I were communicating. I began to wander how well Frigo and Bender had gotten to know each other with only two races and a test session between them and Frigo going back and forth to Brazil.
"He's kind of a quiet guy, and I kind of am, too, so it's taking a while to get to that," said Bender. "He's still in Brazil a lot during the day-to-day operation, so I work with his guy up here, Fausto Filho. It's coming along. Like a marriage, you have to get to know each other."
The National Hot Rod Association was founded in 1951, and within a decade, organized drag racing was adopted in England, Japan, and Australia. With Canadian drivers already having an extensive history in the sport, the presence of non-native North Americans at NHRA events drew interest with Japan's Kenji Okazaki winning in Funny Car in 1997 and active drivers David Grubnic from Australia and Khalid alBalooshi from the Middle East each boasting Top Fuel wins. A swarm of European drivers have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to compete in Top Fuel, particularly during the latter part of the 2009 season. South America, however, hasn't been on the average NHRA fan's radar in terms of drag racing hotbeds.
Frigo hopes to change that both in terms of recognition as a Brazilian and continuing to stir interest in the sport on the home front. The facility in Curitiba, Brazil, opened in 1996 and hosted NHRA drivers that year during an international tour. Frigo, who had drag raced at Interlagos in São Paulo with a turbocharged Volkswagen, bought a Top Alcohol Funny Car one year after the facility opened.
"In Brazil, we have just one adequate racetrack for a few Top Alcohol cars," said Frigo. "I'm building a racetrack that meets NHRA requirements, but it's not ready yet. Facing these limitations, I thought, 'Why not race in the United States, where you can find the best teams, pilots, and tracks in the drag racing world?' "
Having spent two seasons in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks before moving up to Top Fuel, Frigo has been able to use his experience at different facilities to apply to his own track, which is being built to NHRA specifications.
"When I'm at new tracks, I always want to know how they work and get to know every detail that can be helpful for constructing my track in Brazil," said Frigo. "What draws my attention most are the professionals who work and take care of the track, the little details in organizing the event, track preparation, and the [NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA]."
Cultivating the passion
Frigo discovered his mechanical inclination when he began modifying engines at age 15, and at 18, he had his own street car that he hopped up to drag race. He admits to learning from trial and error in the early days.
"That's when I got my first car and put a turbo kit in it," said Frigo. "It broke down [laughs]."
Frigo also raced go-karts when he was younger but got increasingly serious about drag racing with a series of Top Alcohol cars, which are the highestdesignated cars in Brazil. He began in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks in 1997 and ran his first Top Alcohol Dragster in 2000, winning several championships along the way. Frigo claims his greatest moment to be setting the e.t. record at 5.901 seconds at the 13th annual Brazilian Festival at Curitiba in 2006.
"At the end of 2010, I decided to set up a team in the United Stated to compete in Top Alcohol," said Frigo, who earned his NHRA license at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. "In 2011 and 2012, I participated in 18 regional and national events."
With an eventual move up to the Top Fuel ranks in mind, Frigo ordered a three-rail McKinney chassis to compete with an A/Fuel Dragster tuned by champion driver and tuner Tom Conway. He earned an NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event win at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte in 2011 and scored a regional event win in Topeka in 2012 before nearly pulling offa victory at the prestigious 2012 NHRA U.S. Nationals.
During the 2012 season, Frigo earned his Top Fuel license while testing after the Houston event when he drove the Murtco dragster under the guide of Keith Murt and Mitch King.
"I'm proud to be the first Brazilian who won an event and the first and only Brazilian with a Top Fuel license," said Frigo.
Family fueling the fire
Frigo doesn't have any hobbies outside of racing and spending time with his children. With his family, time together and time at the track is often intertwined. His wife, Daniela; 13-year-old twins, Thiago and Isabela; and youngest son, Lucas, 10, have all been down the dragstrip.
"They also developed the same passion that I have for speed and drag racing," said Frigo. "In fact, my wife started because I challenged her. I said that she wouldn't dare to accelerate a dragster. She made her license in the United States [in 2007] and started competing in Brazil. My twins are participating, and my youngest, Lucas, has only wanted to play with cars since he was born and has been participating in races with his Jr. Dragster since he was 5."
The support of his family has buoyed his progression into the Professional ranks, even though they tease him about the sanity of getting behind the wheel of an 8,000-horsepower machine.
"They all support, accompany, and cheer for me," said Frigo. "But, at the same time, they find me crazy."
The grand stage
The step to the Top Fuel class began when Frigo ordered two dragsters from Murf McKinney last summer. McKinney and Tim Wilkerson advised Frigo to hire Bender, who had tuned Larry Dixon and Spencer Massey with Snake Racing and Brandon Bernstein with Kenny Bernstein Racing prior to the 2012 season.
"I was involved with the parts with both of those teams, so I knew basically what it took to race a car per race or per month, what you'd need to spend, how many people you needed, what it costs to travel, and all that," said Bender. "I was able to give them pretty good insight on the extent of our world. It was a big undertaking getting all the parts together to do this."
For the crew, Bender paired guys with Top Fuel experience, such as Bobby and Dom Lagana and Scott Wible, with a cast that came up from the A/Fuel ranks, like Conway and Chase Copeland, who is doing the clutch. They are working out of Conway's shop in Oklahoma.
"We created an excellent team," said Frigo. "The person who helped me most in shaping my career and the team was my friend Fausto Filho. Besides him, I have the support and the expertise of Donnie Bender, Phill Roberts, and Tom Conway."
The transition from driving an A/Fuel Dragster to a Top Fueler was aided by fellow driver Massey, who helped Frigo while they were testing in South Florida, and Frigo has taken to the dragster very quickly.
"He's doing real good staging, cutting good lights, and relaying stuffthat happens during the runs," said Bender. "He has a good seat-of-thepants feeling."
At both events he has attended, Frigo had dramatic moments during Saturday qualifying. He bumped into the show in the final attempt in Pomona and made the starting 16-car field the quickest in Top Fuel history. One week later in Phoenix, he overcame some mechanical issues to bump out surprising nonqualifier Steve Torrence on the final hit. He was unable to get by Tony Schumacher in the first round in both instances.
"We're still a few steps behind," said Bender. "We need to make laps, go A to B, and learn a little bit more. It's definitely going in the right direction from my perspective. Just to qualify is good, but we want to be in the top half of the field and all that. We have a lot to shoot for. Our next step to get to that point is Gainesville."
"My goal in this season is to participate in about 15 events and qualify for the 16-car field at all of them," said Frigo. "I want to learn about the car and this class as much as possible to be able to compete for victories in 2014."
Two races into his Professional career, it's easy for Frigo to list the reasons he wanted to race in Top Fuel in the first place.
"The passion for velocity and for this sport, the fact that I'm representing Brazil in the United States, the birthplace of drag racing," said Frigo. "I'm honored to compete with the best pilots, and it's also a great responsibility to be the only Brazilian in North American Drag Racing."