One Memorable Weekend In Phoenix

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Last week, Racer.com ran a story about Andretti Autosport running at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) for a team test earlier in the week. Marco Andretti was quoted throughout the article discussing how fun the new configuration at Phoenix is for a driver. The article also speculated that Arie Luyendyk’s twenty year-old record at PIR may be in jeopardy, when the series returns in the spring after a ten-year absence.

As I read the quotes from Marco Andretti, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorites races of all time over the years – the 1993 Valvoline 200 at PIR – won by Marco’s grandfather Mario. As it turns out, it was Mario’s final career win. He retired at the end of the following season in 1994.

There was much intrigue leading up to the race at Phoenix that season. Nigel Mansell, the defending Formula One World Champion, had made a much celebrated move to CART after a contractual dispute with Frank Williams. The CART “rookie” didn’t join just any team. He joined one of the strongest teams in the paddock at the time – Newman/Haas, which had won the title in 1991 and came close to winning it again in 1992.

Mansell could not have asked for a better start to his new career in CART. He won the pole for the season-opening race in Surfer’s Paradise. Then he turned the fastest lap of the race on his way to dominating victory.

There was a great series of commercials for Mansell’s sponsor Texaco/Havoline that commemorated his presence. They were filmed at Phoenix and featured Mansell, along with his Newman/Haas teammate, Mario Andretti; as well as Andretti’s nemesis, AJ Foyt. One of the more memorable quotes is when Foyt advises Mansell to not turn right too many times on ovals. It harkens back to the day when sponsors actually utilized their drivers in ads, but I digress. I’ve included one example from this series of commercials for your viewing pleasure down emeory lane.

The fact that Mansell had never raced on an oval was not lost on anyone and the racing world on both sides of the pond was greatly anticipating his first oval race, which was scheduled to take place at Phoenix.

It was not to be. During practice, the car got away from Mansell and he backed it into the concrete wall. The SAFER Barrier was still about nine years away from being invented, so the rear end of the car collided with solid concrete. At least it was solid before Mansell hit it. The car hit the wall with such tremendous force, that it punched a hole about the size of a football through the wall. You could see all the way through. That was a massive hit.

This was also before attenuators had been placed onto the gearbox housing. Every bit of the energy of the collision was transmitted through the gearbox and into Mansell’s back. From what I understand, Mansell was lucky to ever walk again; but he was unable to race at Phoenix. His oval debut eventually took place at Indianapolis, where he qualified eighth and finished third – having had a chance to win in the late stages before blowing a restart and brushing the Turn Two wall.

With Mansell out of the race at Phoenix before it started, much of the luster was gone – or so it seemed. As it turns out, it was one of the most entertaining races I can remember with an unforgettable ending.

There were eight former or future Indianapolis 500 winners in the twenty-five car field that day. The field was chocked full of famous names of the past, along with drivers that would become famous in years to come. Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Arie Luyendyk, Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever all started that race. Drivers such as Scott Pruett, Lyn St. James, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Teo Fabi, Scott Goodyear, Roberto Guerrero, Robby Gordon and Scott Brayton were some of the more familiar names on the grid that day.

In all honesty, the first half of the race was a little on the dull side. Mario Andretti had led the first ten laps before being passed by Paul Tracy. Almost all of the first half was run under green, until Stephan Johansson lost his gearbox and had to be towed in on Lap 94. You know the old saying; yellows breed yellows. Robby Gordon, driving for AJ Foyt, crashed in Turn One on Lap 136. After eight laps of caution for clean-up, the race went green on Lap 144 with Paul Tracy still in the lead since Lap Ten.

But the young Canadian, driving in his first full year with Marlboro Team Penske, would soon show his inexperience. Like Gordon, Tracy found the Turn One wall on Lap 162 while leading with a two-lap lead on the field. With Tracy out, the lead went to his Penske teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi. However, this was not to be Roger Penske’s day. Fittipaldi had a one-lap lead on the field when he took the green flag on the restart. But he didn’t even make it around the track before he inexplicably crashed into the Turn Three wall on Lap 171.

When the filed came around to take the green flag on Lap 183, it was Mansell’s teammate, Mario Andretti, who was leading the race. Andretti led the final seventeen laps before taking the checkered flag and becoming a fifty-three year-old race winner. Newman/Haas co-owner Paul Newman was visibly emotional as his longtime friend and driver won the race.

Mansell would go on to win the CART championship that season. The next year, 1994, was announced to be Mario Andretti’s last; but it was bittersweet. The team was saddled with the underwhelming Lola chassis and Mansell’s massive ego began to resurface. He and Andretti constantly clashed and the team was in disarray. Mansell would return to Formula One in 1995, and Mario would retire as planned. He would be replaced on the team by his son, Michael, who had ended his one year deal with Chip Ganassi. Paul Tracy would replace Mansell for one year, before returning to Penske in 1996.

That weekend in Phoenix in 1993 started with all eyes on Nigel Mansell. But after his injuries postponed Mansell’s oval debut, Mario Andretti turned back the clock and showed that the old guard could still be competitive in an Indy car and that he wasn’t conceding anything to his celebrated new teammate. The Verizon IndyCar Series of today could benefit from storylines like that every now and then.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “One Memorable Weekend In Phoenix”

  1. I resided in Phoenix until mid-1983. I never spectated at P.I.R. as a tween or young teen.
    I don’t remember much of the races of the 1990s that I saw on television — or in-person (Andretti’s ‘Arrivaderci’ run at Laguna Seca). But I LOVED that era of IndyCar racing!
    George, I know that you remember much of some races, but I surmise that you also research (Autocourse IndyCar Yearbook or Internet) before blogging.
    I enjoyed the Havoline ad featuring four champions (Paul Newman narrating).

  2. I didn’t start following Indycar religiously until 1995. I was 8 during the 1993 season, and didn’t really have the attention span or awareness that Indycar raced 16-17 times a year every year. I only caught a race every now and then (mostly the Indy 500) when I wasn’t playing with my Matchbox monster trucks. Every time I did see a race on TV I was transfixed. It was the genesis of my love for Indycar that still burns bright to this day.

    The best thing now is that I have all those Indycar seasons (all the way back to 1983) in digital format, so I can enjoy them wherever I go. Modern technology and YouTube are the best!

  3. This article I believe just shows my age. One of the more enjoyable. I really like the inserted commercial. Articles like this really help getting through this winter season. May is getting closer, can’t wait.

  4. I used to love the Phoenix 150 back in the USAC days and I looked forward to that race almost as much as Indianapolis. I think it was usually the first race of the season and maybe that was part of the thrill. The name is still magical to me. I can’t say that any of the CART races really stand out in my memory but you’ve done a great job describing the 93 race.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I remember watching the races at Phoenix when I was growing up, though not a tremendous amount of detail about them. I have watched/re-watched several recordings from the track too. Good track with a great history of Indycar racing.

    Also, thank you for the reminder that Texaco-Havoline used to run some great ads –

    Nigel: “Why do you go anti-clockwise?”
    Foyt: “You’re in a foreign country, boy.”

    Davey Allison: “I’m wide open all the time.”
    Mario: “The only way to do it.”

    Robert Yates: “The engine’s the first thing over the finish line.”
    Mario: (smirking) “Not in Indycars…”

    Michael: “Me too.”
    Some guy: (amazed) “Michael Andretti!!!!”

    And, going way back (thanks Youtube), Janet Guthrie driving half a car.

  6. Thanks for the trip down memory lane George. I enjoyed the commercial. So few race car sponsors these days have anything to do with cars. Dario and Huggies comes to mind………..sadly.

    • How is having a sponsor that isn’t related to cars a bad thing?

      • I did not say it was a bad thing. Hell, these days any sponsor is welcome. I was simply expressing my personal preference for having an oil can decal on a car instead of a diaper. Perhaps that relates to my experience as a mechanic.

  7. I remember that race quite well. It also further cemented my early fandom of Jimmy Vasser (I’d picked him as one of my favorites the year before after he’d graduated up from Toyota Atlantics), since he finished on the podium in a year old Lola-Chevy “A”. 15-year old me liked pretty much everything about this race.

  8. Chris Lukens Says:

    I remember it. I was there. What I remember was that about three laps from the finish Mario got passed. An audible groan could be heard. What we didn’t realize was that he was a lap up on the rest of the field.

  9. Thank you, George, for sharing the great commercial. I think you need to send it to Mark Miles as a reminder of what our sponsors could be offering.

  10. I was there, inside turn one and got great photos of Mansell’s hit and fireball. In fact great photos all weekend. But I knew Mansell’s first oval practice would be the one to watch.

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