Gualter Salles: WSOP Passion, Ayrton Senna & End of Brazilian F1

Many consider the 1994 Grand Marino Grand Prix to be the darkest weekend in Formula 1 history.

During Friday qualifying, Rubens Barrichello -- a Brazilian who was only on his second F1 season -- went airborne at the Variante Bassa chicane going 140 mph.

Barrichello’s car rolled over several times but finally ended upright. Barrichello was left unconscious and transported to the medical center.

After hearing about the accident fellow Brazilian and F1 legend Ayrton Senna stopped his car and went to go check on Barrichello. Senna found the way to the medical center blocked and climbed over a fence in the back to get in.

When Barrichello woke up Senna was peering over him with tears in his eyes, telling him everything would be alright.

Barrichello suffered a broken nose, a few chipped teeth and a broken arm but made a full recovery. Senna got back in his car and posted the fastest lap of the weekend: 1:22.548.

“It Was Like You Lost Somebody From Your Family"

ayrton senna
Ayrton Senna

The next day, Austrian F1 rookie Roland Ratzenberger’s front wing broke off before the Villenueve corner. Unable to control his car, Ratzenberger crashed into the outside wall of the curve at 195 mph and died of a basilar skull fracture.

It was the first time an F1 driver had died on the track in 12 years.

Once again, Senna jumped the fence to try and gain access to the medical center. Sid Watkins, the FIA medical director and close friend of Senna, pulled the three-time world champion aside and told him Ratzenberger was dead.

Senna broke down crying and refused to resume qualifying. Watkins advised him not to race the following day but Senna refused that notion too.

Later that day, Barrichello was released from the hospital and told Senna he’d watch him race on TV. Barrichello flew back to England where his countryman, roommate and Formula 3 driver, Gualter Salles, picked him up from the airport.

Senna never made it past the 7th lap.

Senna lost control of his car on the Tamburello corner at 190 mph and managed to slow down to 135 mph before slamming into the wall. Senna suffered suffered multiple fatal head injuries.

Also found in the wreckage was an Austrian flag that Senna intended to raise after the race.

Salles and Barrichello, who saw it live on the broadcast, were devastated.

“It was like you lost somebody from your family,” Salles said. “There’s never gonna be anything like that in the future.

Gualter Salles
"I opened my account on PokerStars in 2006 and never stopped.”

"Never. The whole country was devastated. Everybody loved the guy.”

"I Opened My Account and Never Stopped"

Salles, 43, has been racing since he was 16 and playing poker for almost as long.

“I always liked to play poker with my friends but it wasn’t [Texas Hold’em], just five-card and those kinds of games,” Salles told PokerListings on a break at the 2014 WSOP.

"I started watching poker on TV, on ESPN the tournaments. I started to learn, I opened my account on PokerStars in 2006 and never stopped.”

Since then Salles has accumulated $407,906 in live tournament earnings, including 10 WSOP cashes. Salles scored two cashes this year with a 33rd-place finish in a $1,000 NLHE for $6,973 and an 83rd-place finish earlier today in the $3,000 NLHE for $6,066.

But Salles’ most memorable cash was in the 2010 Main Event, where he was left with just one T1,000 chip early in Day 5 and built it back up to 1 million chips.

Salles survived the day and finished 117th for $57,102.

"It Was a Magical Time to Have a Guy Like That Race for Brazil"

While Salles’ poker career is fairly young, he’s been going fast for a while.

Salles started racing go karts in Brazil back in 1987, when racing was just as popular as soccer. Racing’s popularity, Salles said, was due to two men, two Brazilian legends.

“[Ayrton] Senna and Nelson Piquet, the best two Brazilian drivers ever. Racing during Senna, was as popular as soccer, and soccer is crazy [in Brazil].

Annual WSOP pilgrimage a must for Salles.

"During the Senna era, the ratings for TV were crazy, everyone was talking about what happened the next day. It was a magical time to have a guy like that race for Brazil.

"That’s a Brazilian.”

Brazil dominated F1 during the 80s. Piquet won the Driver’s Championship in ‘81, ‘83 and ‘87 and Senna took it down in ‘88.

Senna would go on to win the Driver’s Championship two more times -- in ‘90 and ‘91 -- before his fatal accident. He's widely regarded as one of the best drivers in history.

In the early ‘90s, Salles graduated to the Formula Opel Euroseries and finished the ‘92 season in 2nd place. At that time, Salles was racing with Draco Racing, the team Barrichello won the 1990 Formula Opel Euroseries with.

The following year Salles got a spot on a Formula 3 team and logged his best season in 1995 with Fortec Motorsport. Salles finished the season in 7th with one win and two podium finishes.

After that, Salles moved to the United States to race.

Always Time for the WSOP

Salles found himself behind the wheel of a Lola T93/20/Buick in the Firestone Indy Lights Championship.

Salles won three races that year and finished the season in third. The next year Salles found himself in a different car in a different series.

From 1997 to 2000 -- and once again in 2003 -- Salles raced Champ Car before returning to Brazil. Back in his home country, Salles raced Stock Car for a few years and finally hung up the helmet in 2007 at the age of 37.

That doesn’t mean Salles is done with racing though.

“I’m still involved, I own a race car team in Brazil, a stock car team, Vogel Motorsport,” Salles said.

“I’m running the team, I go to all the races. That’s why I’m not able to play poker as much as I used to. I barely play online and live tournaments.”

While Vogel Motorsport takes up most of his time, Salles says there’s always time for the WSOP.

“I play here [at the WSOP] every year and I’m going to come every year,” Salles said.

End of the line for Brazilian F1?

“Last month I put some money in my PokerStars account and played a lot. Playing the SCOOP to get ready for this.”

End of the Road for Brazilian F1?

With Salles dedicated to make it to the WSOP every year, Brazil can rest easy knowing it will have representation in poker’s biggest stage.

Salles says the same can’t be said for Formula 1 though.

“There aren’t many [Brazilians in F1] at the moment, just one, Felipe Massa. All the young Brazilians like to race in Brazilian Stock Car,” Salles said.

“They start making money at 18 and it’s easier for them. Formula 1 is hard to get into, you need a lot of money to get in.

“It’s going to be sad when [Massa] retires because I don’t know if Brazil is going to have somebody else there in the near future.

"I don’t see anyone else that’s really a standout out and can make it there.”

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