One Memorable Weekend In Phoenix
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.