In racing, so often the greatest, fastest and more dashing drivers are the ones in the spotlight, the ones who you see in commercials, on posters, and in this day and age, all over the internet and social media. But what about those who stay in the dark, who never got to be a champion or a star in motorsports? When will they get their time to shine?
Well today, one such driver will get to be in the spotlight. A man with career highlights that include rattling off three consecutive Indy Lights victories in 1996 and leading a single lap in a 48 race career in the CART World Series. A man who retired from gambling behind the wheel to gamble at a table. This man is Gualter Salles.
Gualter in all his glory during his 2003 CART season with Dale Coyne Racing.
Gualter Salles, born on September 28th in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, began his ascent to the top in the Formula Opel Lotus Euroseries in 1991, racing bizarrely enough for Lotus Team Nederland. Two season of mild success in this series, including 2 victories and 4 pole positions, netted him a move up British Formula 3 in 1993. Over three years he would a single career win, at Silverstone in 1995, and was credited with fastest lap at the 1994 Macau GP.
After a one-off for Konrad Motorsport in a Porsche 911 GT2 in the 1996 BPR Global GT Series, Gualter shifted his focus to the United States, and it is here where he would truly make his mark, no matter how small it may have been, on the world of motorsport.
Gualter on the way to his maiden (and lone) Formula 3 victory at Silverstone in 1995, driving for Fortec Motorsport.
Having abandoned hope of making it up the ladder in European open-wheel racing, Gualter set his sights on America in 1996, and ended up in a Firestone/Dayton Indy Lights car fielded by Brian Stewart Racing. This move, as it turned out, was a good one, as Gualter would go on to have a very successful season, racking up three consecutive victories at Portland, Cleveland and Toronto, and earning the pole position at Long Beach. He would end the year third in the points standings, behind champion Dave Empringham and future CART and Indycar star Tony Kanaan, and ahead of such drivers as future IRL champion Greg Ray and 3-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
This impressive rookie season paid off almost instantly, as Gualter was signed to the Davis Racing team to compete in the CART World Series in 1997. Piloting the small Texas-based team's number 77 Ford powered Reynard, Gualter had an uneventful but also rather unimpressive rookie season. Highlights include qualifying 12th for his home race at the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway outside Rio, a race in which he also led for a lap before an unfortunate engine failure on lap 85, and a 7th place finish at the penultimate race of the year at Laguna Seca. Salles and Davis parted ways after 1997, with the team bringing in young German Arnd Meier as his replacement. For 1998, Gualter Signed a partial season deal with Dale Coyne Racing, and it was with them that he would have his finest moments in racing.
Salles (top) races wheel to wheel with Richie Hearn on the way to a season best 7th place finish at Laguna Seca in 1997.
For 1998, Salles was to share the number 34 Dale Coyne Racing Reynard/Ford with veteran pay driver Dennis Vitolo, and after an under-the-radar 12th place finish at his first race of the year in Motegi, Gualter would give the CART world a shock at Long Beach.
Newly configured for 1998, the circuit proved faster and more treacherous than ever, and it was on this newly modified circuit that Salles shined. He put his car a surprising fourth on the grid, beaten only by the two Team Rahal cars of polesitter Bryan Herta and team owner Bobby Rahal, and the Patrick Racing car of Adrian Fernandez. Having qualified only two tenths of a second off pole, Gualter was able to stick around in the top ten for most of the early going, until contact with notable CART backmarker "King" Hiro Matsushita on lap 30 put him down a lap, leading to an eventual 13th place finish. Gualter would run four more races for Coyne in 1998, but never quite regained the magic he seemed to have found at Long Beach that fateful April weekend.
Gualter turns laps in his Dale Coyne Reynard at Mid-Ohio in 1998.
The upbeat Brazilian returned to race Long Beach for Coyne again in 1999, before filling in for the legendarily slow Shigeaki Hattori at Bettenhausen Racing at Rio. He also made a single start in the Indy Racing League, at the season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway, which ended on the 91st lap with a crash.
Salles was then called up to replace Alex Barron at Dan Gurney's struggling All-American Racers, where he failed to improve the team's results, not able to fully come to grips with the combination of an unreliable Toyota engine and rather crude in-house built Eagle chassis. After seven starts with the team, Gualter was let go, and would make another start at Bettenhausen in place of Hattori at Surfers Paradise to close out his 1999 season, netting himself a 10th place finish at the attrition heavy circuit.
Salles at the wheel of Dan Gurney's Eagle 997 at Michigan Speedway in 1999.
The year 2000 brought yet another contract at Dale Coyne racing for Gualter, but it was to be one rough year. An 11th place qualifying at the season opener at Homestead Miami was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dark year that saw six DNFs in as many starts. Off the back of a brutal season, Gualter branched out into the world of motorsports, and went off to try his hand at just about everything on four wheels in 2001.
Gualter at the wheel of the advanced (and unsuccessful) Panoz LMP07 Roadster at Donington Park.
First up was a crack at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with Konrad Motorsport in a Ford-powered Lola prototype. This attempt, however, ended after only 96 laps, as the car was retired with electrical problems. Staying in the realm of sports cars, Gualter signed on to race for for Panoz in the American Le Mans Series, partnered with Klaus Graf in the #51 LMP1 Roadster. His ALMS career was short-lived however, as he made only three starts for the team at the Grand Prix of Texas, 12 Hours of Sebring and the ELMS round at Donington Park, with a best finish of 5th in the Lone Star State, before being replaced by Frenchman Franck Lagorce.
Having exhausted seemingly all his options, Gualter returned to his homeland, where he competed in Stock Car Brasil. Success didn't exactly come his way here either though, as he struggled and only racked up a single podium finish in three full seasons of competition between 2001 and 2003. It was in 2003, however, that he was given another crack at CART by an old friend, with yet another opportunity to race for Dale Coyne.
Gualter prepares to qualify for his third start of the season at the Cleveland airport circuit.
Strapped into a bright yellow Lola, Gualter made his season debut at the Milwaukee Mile replacing Malaysian Alex Yoong in the #11 car, before moving over to the #19 car to replace Swiss rookie Joel Camathias for the balance of the season. Most will remember his 2003 season for the Vancouver race, where both he and team mate Geoff Boss wrecked their cars on the warmup lap of the event, ending their races before they could begin. The rest of his season was uneventful, until the penultimate race down under in Surfers Paradise.
A chaotic and somewhat bizarre race that included no less than seven safety car period and a red flag for torrential rain in the middle of it, it played right into the hands of the Dale Coyne, who used the chaos and his strategic prowess to net both his cars top ten finishes, with Gualter coming home a career high 6th and team mate Geoff Boss finishing in 9th. This would prove to be the final CART season for Salles, and so he went out on the highest note of his American open-wheel racing career.
The Vogel Motorsport Chevrolet Astra piloted by Salles in the 2006 Stock Car Brasil season.
Gualter once again headed back to Brazil in 2004 to continue running in Stock Car Brasil, becoming a part-owner in the Vogel Motorsport team, which he would race for with not much success until his eventual retirement from racing at the end of the 2007 SCB season. Just like that, an illustrious car that had spanned the globe and virtually every discipline of racing was over.
But even in retirement, Gualter still keeps busy, having been an avid player on both PokerStars and in the World Series of Poker, accumulating over $400,000 in winnings to this day, with his largest of over $57,000 coming at the 2010 World Series of Poker, where he placed 117th overall. From putting his life on the line behind the wheel to putting his chips on the line at the tables, Gualter has done alright since retiring from racing.
Gualter with his poker face in full effect at the tables.
So if you've bothered to read this far, I hope you've enjoyed this detailed look into the racing career of Gualter Salles. He not have been a champion or an icon in motorsport, but he achieved a lot more than most, and even found a second career at the world's competitive poker tables to boot.
Was this article worth reading, or even worth writing? Probably not, but rarely do the average Joes of the racing world get their time in the spotlight, and I felt today was the day Gualter would get that chance. Thank you for reading.
- Peter Burke Photography (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Wikimedia Commons
- Gualter himself, for relaying to me the information about his co-ownership of the Vogel Motorsport team, and for approving of this article.