Champ Car driver critical after collision with deer

There are many ways that driver can get injured in an open-wheel racing car. A 100-mph collision with a deer isn't one that usually comes to mind.

But that's the fate that befell Cristiano da Matta on Thursday during a routine test day at Road America. According to witnesses, the 32-year-old Brazilian's RuSPORT Racing Lola struck the animal after it darted onto the track from the driver's right on the uphill run to the blind, left-hand Turn 6.

The impact knocked da Matta unconscious and he was airlifted to Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah, Wis., for emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma -- a ruptured blood vessel on the surface of the brain. He remains in critical condition at the hospital and is likely to be kept in a medically-induced coma for the next couple days until the swelling in his brain recedes.

"After arriving at Theda Clark Medical Center, a head CT scan showed Cristiano had suffered a subdural hematoma," Champ Car medical director Dr. Chris Pinderski said. "He was urgently taken to the operating room for surgical removal of the hematoma and is now being observed in the intensive care unit."

The popular driver nicknamed "Shorty" is likely to be hospitalized for at least two weeks and recovery could take several months, leaving RuSPORT scrambling for a replacement driver for the No. 10 car for the second time this year.

Da Matta competed in the CART-sanctioned open-wheel series from 1999 to 2002, winning the 2002 season championship for Newman/Haas Racing. He then had a mostly unsuccessful 1½-year stint with the Toyota Formula 1 team in 2003 and '04 before returning to Champ Car in 2005, winning the Portland race for PKV Racing.

The native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, started the 2006 season with Dale Coyne Racing but moved to RuSPORT when that team released A.J. Allmendinger. Da Matta earned his best result of the season last Sunday at San Jose, where he finished second.

"It's great to get this result because I admit there have been some times when I wondered if it was going to happen again," da Matta said after Sunday's race. "Now that pressure is off and I can focus on making the car better and becoming a consistent threat for podiums and top-fives."

The accident occurred on the first day of a two-day open test for the Champ Car World Series at Road America, a hilly and heavily wooded natural road course near Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Road America media director Julie Sebranek said she had never heard of a similar incident at the track.

"The race track has been here for 50 years. It's highly, highly unusual," Sebranek said Friday.

An eight-foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire circles the 628-acre property, which is surrounded by wooded terrain and farm fields.

When asked how the deer got onto the property, Sebranek said: "They have been known to jump the eight-foot fences."

"It's just a freak thing and we just maintain the property as we do on a daily basis," she added.

The track is a favorite among drivers because it is one of the few road courses in the world unspoiled by chicanes and other artificial safety devices. At 4.048 miles in length and with 14 turns, it is the longest circuit in use by the Champ Car series. It is also extremely fast: Dario Franchitti set the lap record of 1 minute, 39.866 seconds in a Reynard-Honda Champ Car in 2000, working out to an average speed of 145.924 mph -- almost as fast as some ovals.

Two-time defending series champion Sebastien Bourdais turned the fastest lap in Thursday's testing action of 1:43.669, while da Matta was third quickest before his accident.

During practice for the 1987 Austrian Grand Prix, Stefan Johansson struck a deer in a McLaren MP4-3 Formula 1 car. The Swede, who now races sports cars and manages the career of Indy Racing League driver Scott Dixon, suffered a cracked rib in the incident.

"I got a hell of a fright, I can tell you," Johansson said. "And the thing is that the deer was apparently running around in the woods and the field for some time but no one thought to have practice stopped."

Had it been a normal practice or qualifying day on a race weekend at Road America, spectators probably would have scared away the deer or at least reported its presence in the area so that action could have been stopped. But with only 12 cars running for a private test session and a correspondingly smaller group of corner workers and safety personnel on hand, it's almost impossible to police such a large and rustic area.

RuSPORT immediately made the decision to pull out of Friday's scheduled on-track activity with driver Justin Wilson; other teams may follow suit. The Champ Car World Series is scheduled to return to Road America for a race the weekend of Sept. 22-24.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.