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Willy Herrmann, the German Guy Who Became Brazil's Mr. Formula Indy Print E-mail
Written by Phillip Wagner   
Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Willy HerrmannWhat do the family of Brazil's largest supermarket chain, a former Brazilian telenovela (soap opera) actor, Emerson Fittipaldi, and a low-budget 1982 film have to do with the emergence of a Brazilian Indy Racing League (IRL) talent pipeline, and with Brazilian dominance at the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing"? The story of one very resourceful man provides the answers.

São Paulo based Image Group (IG) motorsports marketing and management, co-founded by Willy Herrmann, annually negotiates the television rights for, and markets Formula Indy in Brazil. IG also promotes and secures Indy Racing League (IRL) opportunities for Brazilian race drivers, and facilitates providing Brazil with qualification and race day broadcast feeds.

Willy's Italian-born, but likewise Brazil raised, counterpart, Carlo Gancia, provides technology expertise and technical innovation leadership, manages financial issues and driver relationships and focuses on global public relations. German born Brazilian raised Willy keeps field operations running smoothly and develops and nurtures relationships that move mountains in the U.S. IRL racing community and among Brazilian sponsors.

To the American public, the force behind Formula Indy in Brazil is an invisible man. But IRL popularity in Brazil, such as it is but growing, and the increasing opportunities for and impressive successes realized by Brazilian Formula Indy drivers owe much to the unassuming man racing teams affectionately call "Willy."

Willy Herrmann was born in Hamburg Germany in July of 1952, although his parents had already been living in Brazil for decades. While Willy was not supposed to have been born in Germany, it seems fitting in a way that he was, since when his father Wilhelm first traveled to Brazil it was not anticipated he would remain there. The events which account for what ultimately transpired began to unfold many years before Willy's birth.

A thriving import/export business founded by Willy's grandfather in Germany was severely disrupted by the First World War. So many of the company's relationships with business contacts in other countries were adversely affected, or were terminated, that its continued viability was threatened.

Following the war Wilhelm, Willy's future father, was one of nine brothers sent abroad. Each went to a different country, to establish new relationships. Willy can say that in addition to Brazil, South Africa, China, Argentina, Canada, the U.S. and Australia had been destinations.

His eight uncles all returned to Germany within a couple of years, but Wilhelm remained in Brazil where he met and married Mariana, an Austrian born beauty, and where he founded his own import/export business.

Wilhelm and a pregnant (with Willy) Mariana traveled to Germany in 1952 for a visit. Willy's older half-sister Heide stayed behind, in a boarding school. The Herrmann's journey to Germany was a long one, by boat, consuming weeks. When Mariana fell ill, Wilhelm and Mariana decided to extend their stay until after she gave birth. Wilhelm was anxious to develop business relations in the UK.

So after Willy arrived Wilhelm and Mariana moved with their new infant to England, where they lived for about four years before returning to their home near the expansive Central Park-like Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. Willy's personal memories begin at this time.

Willy recalls that with the 1976 passing of his father, his mother moved to their weekend home in the adjoining state of Minas Gerais. Willy himself had established his own business at the age of 17. His father inspired the initiative by encouraging Willy to produce plastic moulds for equipment used in black and white photo development. By the age of 23 Willy had married and purchased his own home in Murumbi, another district in São Paulo. On May 14 of 1975 his wife Celia - whom he'd met at Carnaval - gave birth to Karen, their only child.

In 1983 Willy decided to accept a buyout offer for his business from a larger company. He had earned an MBA from Getúlio Vargas University in São Paulo and wanted to pursue marketing. While the sale of his company was still underway he received a timely and ultimately life-changing call from Tony Correia.

Tony, a Portuguese actor-friend, was a Miss Portugal judge famous for his roles in telenovelas, Brazilian soaps. Brazilian Telenovela fans of the 1970s may recall him from the series Locomotivas, in which he played a Portuguese waiter, or they may know him from O Casarão.

Willy first met Tony Correia through a film venture. Correia was dating the daughter of the president of the Confederação Brasileira de Automobilismo, or CBA, and wanted to make a film about Formula One Drivers. Correia secured Willy's participation.

In the absence of proper funding Willy sold sponsor advertising which appeared in the film, as it would in real life, in Formula One competition venues, etc. There were special appearances by many notable Formula One drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti.

The 104-minute film, titled "Os Campeões" and directed by Carlos Coimbra, was released in 1982 under a plotline described by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as "A poor mechanic tries to enter the auto racing world to impress his son."

The Fittipaldi Connection

Emerson Fittipaldi set the Brazilian racing world on fire by winning Formula One championships in 1972 and 1974, and by bringing Formula One to Brazil. But by the time Brazilian Nelson Piquet was winning his own second Formula One title, Fittipaldi's fortunes had fallen so low that he was back to racing go-karts in Brazil. Fittipaldi, said Correia, was contemplating a comeback and was looking for someone to handle the marketing. Would Willy be interested?

Emerson confessed to being unable to pay Willy at that time. But if Willy could be patient about receiving compensation Emerson would offer him a ten year partnership. The Fittipaldi Holding Company was born within that frame of understanding, and the partners set out to secure a new opportunity for Emerson in Formula One.

Time passed, and without success in securing a competitive ride for Fittipaldi. Emerson agreed to make a celebrity appearance at the Miami, Florida IMSA Grand Prix. On arriving he was invited to 'test out' a car for Ralph Sanchez, who afterwards asked Fittipaldi to pilot the car. 'Emmo' led that competition from the outset until his driveshaft failed two-thirds of the way into the race. Suddenly Emerson Fittipaldi was marketable in the United States.

In a Miami, Florida Indy Car hospitality suite, Cuban Pepe Romero suggested to Willy that Fittipaldi consider Indy Car racing as an alternative to Formula One, and he offered to put together a team. Emerson bought into the idea and restarted his racing career in earnest at the Formula Indy Long Beach Grand Prix in 1984.

Willy eventually secured for Fittipaldi Holding the handling of annual negotiations for Brazilian television rights to Indy Car racing. By the time Emerson got his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1989, the careers of both Willy and Emerson were on 'solid ground' again.

Fittipaldi won a second time in Indianapolis, in 1993 at the age of 48, securing his legendary status among North American racing fans. But Willy, an increasingly important force in the Brazil-Indy Car racing relationship, remained relatively obscured from public view.

The IRL/CART Split and Life after Fittipaldi

A Formula Indy IRL and Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) split occurred just as the ten year contractual partnership between Willy and Fittipaldi was ending. Fittipaldi decided to go with CART and sequestered influence over Brazilian television rights handling for the new CART league. Willy opted to work with the IRL and since that time has been responsible for annually renegotiating Brazilian IRL television rights.

Willy also, following the Indy car split teamed up with technology-and-finance savvy former Swiss banker Carlo Gancia under the name of Image Group. Carlo and Willy helped form and market the Forti Corse Italian Formula One racing team (and they have been partners ever since). Carlo's contributions included managing driver Pedro Paulo Diniz, whose family owns the Brazilian Pão de Açucar supermarket chain.

The Formula One arrangement lasted for two years, 1994 and 1995. After it fell apart Image Group began to pour its energies into marketing the IRL. IG's offices were founded in Monte Carlo, where they remained until 2005. For all practical purposes Willy has always operated out of, and in, Brazil and the United States.

Carlo last year moved IG global base operations to a Swiss Chalet where he also generally resides, and reestablished the permanent residence of his wife and children in Brazil. Willy, of course, maintains an IG office in São Paulo where he and his family live.

While Willy focuses more on managing on the day to day operations of IG 'in the field,' Carlo handles all contracts, serves as a first point of contact for driver relations and focuses on global public relations.

IG has increasingly refined and strengthened its approach of effectively leveraging symbiotic relations between television, sponsorships and Brazilian drivers.

"Drivers need sponsors, sponsors need exposure and ratings need drivers," says Willy. Through the masterful integration of these three interests, IG produces exciting and lucrative opportunities for Brazilian race drivers, entertains millions of Brazilian racing fans and elevates Brazilian national pride. In fact, given CART's tenuous present business position in racing, IG as the IRL standard bearer in Brazil is pretty much operating 'unopposed' there.

A Growing Legacy

The most obvious reflection of Image Group impact for U.S. race fans is the fact that IG has so effectively helped to populate the league with Brazilian drivers. Hélio Castroneves was introduced to Indy Car racing, for example, in 1996 when IG helped bring Hélio to the U.S. to compete in the old Indy Lights series.

The Indy Lights series, like the later Infiniti Pro series and subsequent Indy Pro series served to develop IRL drivers. While it is common knowledge that Castroneves is a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, it's worth mentioning that he's finished in the top ten in all five of his starts at Indianapolis, including a second place finish in 2003 when Brazilians Gil de Ferran, Castroneves and Tony Kanaan finished one-two-three.

IG also helped to bring over Felipe Giaffone who finished third at Indy in 2002 and Vitor Meira who finished second last year.

This year IG is helping introduce Brazilian Thiago Medeiros, whose PDM Racing team sponsors include Indianapolis-based Royal Spa, STP Brazil and the Brazilian Sugar Cane Ethanol Association. Medeiros won both the 2004 Indy Pro Freedom 100 at Indianapolis and the 2004 Indy Pro Series championship.

The 23-year-old rookie Indy 500 driver appears certain to follow in the footsteps of Brazilians like those already mentioned, including Fittipaldi and his nephew Christian, and the likes of Nelson Piquet, Raul Boesel, Bruno Junqueira, Airton Dare and Giaffone's cousin Affonso.

While not all of these drivers, and their accomplishments, have been directly facilitated by Brazil's "Mr. Formula Indy" there can be no doubt that each of them, and the IRL, have benefited from his contributions to the evolution of Brazilian interest in the IRL, and IRL Brazilian driver and sponsor participation.

Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor to Brazzil, covering the Indianapolis 500 for several years now. He is also the founder of the Rhythm of Hope in Brazil at http://www.rhythmofhope.org, maintains a very extensive pro-Brazil website at http://www.iei.met/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm and regularly works with and for social programs serving favela children in Bahia. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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