INDIANAPOLIS Gil de Ferran still enjoys the sensation he gets from driving a race car: his hands gripping the wheel, the air whipping across the top of his helmet.
He still loves the idea of pushing his machine and himself to the limit, straddling the line between triumph and disaster as the car slides into the corner.
Even though he's had two serious crashes in the last nine months and his resume is largely complete after winning the Indianapolis 500, de Ferran isn't ready to fade away just yet.
''I enjoy challenging myself,'' the Brazilian said Monday, returning to the track less than 24 hours after the biggest win of his career. ''I still get a thrill out of it. As long as I feel that, my life as a race car driver will go on.''
If de Ferran chose to step away from the sport after this season as some have speculated no one would blame him.
Last September, he sustained a concussion and fractured his left wrist in a crash at Chicago, causing him to miss the final race of the 2002 season. In March, de Ferran got another concussion and fractures in his neck and lower back when he wrecked at Phoenix. He needed six weeks to recuperate.
On the homefront, de Ferran has a wife and two young children who certainly want him to reach the end of his career in one piece. Professionally, his goals have largely been met with two series championships in CART and, now, a victory at the Brickyard.
Even so, de Ferran didn't sound like a guy who's pondering retirement.
''It doesn't come from my head, it comes from my heart,'' he said. ''For me, it's not about the history books. It's me against me. I want to see how far I can go.''
He went all the way to Victory Lane on Sunday, holding off teammate and two-time defending champion Helio Castroneves in the third-closest finish in Indy history about five car lengths. After a whirlwind night celebrating the greatest moment of his career, de Ferran returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the usual round of publicity photographs at the start-finish line.
The Penske Racing car was pushed slowly into place while de Ferran's 6-year-old son, Luke, handled the steering duties. Then it was time to say ''Cheese'' a few hundred times, making sure all the sponsorship commitments were met.
''I've hardly had time to take it all in and realize what's going on,'' de Ferran said. ''I'm still sort of floating in the air. I've not had a chance to sit down and say, 'Oh my God, it really happened.' I probably will in a few days.''
A renaissance man of sorts, de Ferran didn't get into racing full-time until age 19, dropping out of the Brazilian college where he studied mechanical engineering.
His dream was to race in Formula One, where he would have followed in the footsteps of countrymen Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. De Ferran tested for a couple of teams in the early '90s, but never landed a ride.
''I like Formula One cars. I always did,'' de Ferran said. ''I don't even need to see them run. They can be standing still and I'll say, 'Wow.' But the way my life went, my career went, I never had a good opportunity to drive in Formula One.''
Instead, he came to America in 1995, showing his immense potential right away on the CART circuit. De Ferran won a race at Laguna Seca and claimed the rookie of the year award.
Before the 2000 season, Roger Penske called. De Ferran immediately helped the Captain get back to the top, winning the team's first season championship since 1994.
De Ferran repeated the feat in '01, then moved with Penske to the Indy Racing League. The only thing missing was a victory in the sport's biggest race, a void that was even more glaring when Castroneves won the last two years.
While his outgoing teammate reveled in the spotlight, de Ferran was content to remain in the background. He didn't feel slighted then, and he doesn't feel vindication now.
''I wasn't searching for relief,'' he said. ''Maybe that's why I don't feel it. For me, the dream is pushing myself further.''
Spoken like a man who plans to keep on racing, though de Ferran won't say with certainty that he'll be back to defend his title in 2004. It's not in his nature. He prefers to stay focused firmly on the present.
''It's too early to say that right now,'' he said. ''I'm just savoring my moment here.''
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