January 22, 1971 – September 11, 1999
Scored a point in CART debut
3-time winner in F3000 (1998 at Spa, Nurburgring, 1999 at Monaco)
The motor racing world is one of enormous emotional toll. Often times, its fastest rising stars are the ones that never get the chance to see how their careers would have ended had it not been for a freak accident. Gilles Villeneuve, Stefan Bellof, Greg Moore and Jules Bianchi are prime examples of drivers that had much more to give the racing world but weren’t able to do so.
Such was also the case with Gonzalo Rodriguez, known by his fellow competitors and by his supporters as Gonchi.
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Gonchi was attracted to anything with wheels, starting from when he was very young. That led to him racing karts and in Uruguayan Formula Renault, where he won a couple of championships.
Gonchi left for Europe in 1993, racing in Spanish Formula Renault before moving to Great Britain the next year to race in British Formula Renault and, eventually, British Formula 3 in 1995.
Gonchi’s 1995 British F3 season featured one victory at Silverstone that was removed during post race scrutineering. Debris had lodged itself in the airbox, causing the restrictor to explode, giving his engine much more power and allowing him to set lap times much faster than his competition. After the podium ceremony, he was disqualified but then walked over to winner Gualter Salles and handed over the trophy.
In 1997, Gonchi started driving in Formula 3000, the step below Formula One. His first season in F3000 was less than stellar, earning only 0.5 points and finishing 22nd in the championship while driving for a lesser team.
However, 1998 was a different story for Gonchi, especially after joining Team Astromega with fellow South American Gaston Mazzacane. He earned his first victory in F3000 at Spa, overtaking eventual champion Juan Pablo Montoya at Les Combes when Montoya’s gearbox went all the way down to first gear, making Montoya’s line wide at corner entry and allowing Gonchi through.
Gonchi was victorious at the season finale at the Nurburgring after driving the whole race in a drying track after a midday rainstorm made the track very slippery.
In 1999, Gonchi scored points in the first three races of the F3000 season, but the second race of the season was his highlight. He won the Monaco round of the championship after amassing a lead of over a minute in length.
Eventually, his next move across the Atlantic would alter his career’s destiny.
Astromega’s team owner had a business connection with Roger Penske, owner of one of the most successful teams in what was then known as the FedEx Championship Series. While Al Unser Jr. drove one car for Penske, the other car was driven by a few different drivers, and Gonchi was put in at Detroit.
Gonchi scored a point on his debut, but couldn’t drive for Penske in 2000 because Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore had already been signed for the team, but Pat Patrick met with Gonchi and signed him up for 2000.
Gonchi never drove for Patrick Racing.
On September 11th, while practicing for the Laguna Seca race on the schedule, Gonchi suffered a stuck throttle heading to the Corkscrew. After striking a barrier and flipping over it, the car landed upside down with its pilot fatally injured inside.
A basilar skull fracture claimed the life of Gonzalo Rodriguez, and with it, open wheel racing’s first possible Uruguayan star.
16 years and one day following Gonchi’s death, fellow Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia won the 2015 Pro Mazda Championship at the same track that claimed the life of his childhood hero. Urrutia continues to ascend up the racing ranks, attempting to fulfill a dream that Gonchi never realized.