Sunday, September 11, was the 23rd anniversary of Uruguayan racing driver Gonzalo “Gonchi” Rodríguez’s death. His loss was a big shock for the sports sphere.
From the beginning, Gonzalo’s life was shaped by automobiles when he enthusiastically joyrode his buggy as an infant in his backyard. He rode his first motorcycle at 7, learned how to drive at 9, and got his first kart at 14. Also, his father, Jorge, was a touring and rally racer, so his family was always close to the racing world.
He won his first title as the Uruguayan karting Champion at 14 in 1985. Because he was under 16, he had to get a special permit to start competing. He won the Uruguay Formula Renault championship from 1988-90 and then headed to Europe to drive in Formula Ford, Formula 3, and Formula 3000.
Sadly, almost 15 years after his first victory, his promising career got cut short in 1999, at 27 years old. Team Penske Lola B99/00-Mercedes Benz went off track in a fateful curve at the entrance to the corkscrew during a practice session in the Laguna Seca CART circuit (now IndyCar).
The day before the accident, he had a conversation with his mother. He told her he had already achieved everything he had always dreamed of accomplishing. He had won, earlier in May, the F3000 Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, as part of the Astromega team, on a particularly tortuous track. They say it is highly likely he would have eventually moved further to Formula 1.
He was as proud of Uruguay as Uruguayans were proud of him. In 1998, on his first F3000 victory in Belgium, his getting to the podium was so unexpected organizers couldn’t find the national anthem or Uruguay’s flag. Gonchi refused to step on the stand until they did.
It was never a free ride for Gonchi and his family, with no privileges nor financial certainty. In Spain, to make ends meet, he slept on couches and had to work for the teams he was part of, both sweeping the workshops and as a driver.
Nani, Gonzalo’s sister and best friend – as she lovingly remembers him – followed his career path closely as she joined him in Europe when he was competing in Belgium. Since money was also tight back home, she had to sell her car to be able to afford the plane ticket. Today, she cherishes those times as some of the best years of her life.
A year after Gonzalo’s death, Nani, also passionate and determined, started the Fundación Gonzalo Rodríguez, following a path based on some of her late brother’s values: honesty, commitment, and solidarity.
The non-profit, non-governmental organization works in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile and has the vision of zero casualties due to traffic road deaths. Their mission is to eliminate serious injuries and road deaths, and to promote children’s and adolescents’ safe and healthy mobility.
Besides putting Uruguay on the map in the world of motor racing, Gonchi’s legacy continues to this day through the Fundación, which celebrates and promotes his core principles. They collaborate with governments and other institutions in three complementary areas: creation and dissemination of relevant knowledge, promotion of regulations and public policies, and articulation of the efforts of multiple actors concerned with the same objectives.
In 2015, filmmakers Federico Lemos and Luis Ara premiered the documentary Gonchi the movie. The piece portrays how Gonzalo did everything he could to reach his goal of making it to Formula 1. It includes testimonies of his family in Uruguay and the one he adopted in England, team directors, supporters, and racers Mark Webber, Hélio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Justin Wilson, and Santiago Urrutia.
This year, on September 11, the Museo Gonchi was inaugurated as part of the Centro Cultural Gonzalo Rodríguez built in 2020. It’s an interdisciplinary cultural space, open to the general public, in which educational, cultural, and artistic activities converge to preserve Gonchi’s memory and create a sense of responsibility and community, focusing on road safety.
Gonchi’s story is an inspirational tale about overcoming obstacles and following your dreams with passion and dedication. We will not forget his legacy, just like his ever-smiling countenance.