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Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

For 10 or more years through the ’90s into the new century Australian race fans enjoyed a thriving CART IndyCar race on the streets of Surfers Paradise in addition to the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide and its successor at Albert Park in Melbourne. On Queensland’s east coast, Surfers Paradise drew darn near as big a crowd as the F1 races to the south only to fall afoul of the CART/IRL war.

As CART fell into bankruptcy and was replaced for a few years by Champ Car the Queensland street race began to lose momentum, disappearing from the IndyCar calendar after Champ Car’s last remains were swallowed by the IRL in 2008.

indycar  Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

Today, Surfers Paradise survives happily as a round of the Australian V8 Supercar championship. It’s still a big weekend in Australian motor sport and continues to attract current IndyCar drivers but 20 years ago the race was entering its boom years.

Back in the early and mid-’90s Surfers Paradise was the opening round of CART’s IndyCar World Series and in 1993 there was added interest in the shape of 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell who had decided to turn his back on Formula 1 and Williams to race for Paul Newman and Carl Haas’s Newman/Haas team.

Mansell made his IndyCar debut at Surfers Paradise in the middle of March, 1993, and his presence ratcheted up the worldwide interest in IndyCar racing. The current World Champion brought a flock of British newspaper reporters and photographers and a crush of global paparazzi the likes of which IndyCar racing had never seen.

Like all street races, Surfers struggled to establish itself and make money in its early years. Launched in 1991 the race had drawn well but Mansell’s appearance pushed the crowd to a new level with 220,000 buying tickets over the four-day weekend and 81,000 on raceday.

indycar  Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

Typically, Mansell delivered. He qualified on pole position, messed up his first rolling start, then outbraked Emerson Fittipaldi for the lead in a cloud of tyre smoke. But it happened under a yellow flag and Mansell dropped to fourth after serving a penalty before motoring back to the front, easily beating Fittipaldi in the end after the Brazilian had to conserve fuel.

Mansell went on to win four more IndyCar races that year and take the CART championship. We’ll revisit the story of Mansell’s 1993 championship in the magazine a little later this year but as far as Surfers Paradise was concerned the following year was even bigger.

After an abortive part-season in Formula 1 with McLaren in ‘93, Michael Andretti returned to IndyCar racing in ‘94 with Chip Ganassi’s team. Mansell qualified on the pole with Michael second in Ganassi’s Reynard and they engaged in a fierce battle in the race. Delayed by a heavy cloudburst the race ran into the night with Michael scoring a resounding comeback victory. It was also Reynard’s first IndyCar win so there was quite a party that night.

Emerson Fittipaldi came through to finish second with Mario Andretti third while Mansell fell down the order in the late-race scramble, finishing ninth. But Michael could not have been more delighted to have beaten Mansell in a straight fight and also to share the podium with his father for what turned out to be the last time. “Beating King Nigel at Surfers Paradise was one of the most satisfying wins I ever had,” Michael grins. “I really enjoyed that one.”

indycar  Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

Today, Andretti is IndyCar’s champion owner with Ryan Hunter-Reay leading his four-car team. IndyCar starts its new season next weekend on a street circuit in St. Petersburg, Florida. The race in St. Pete is one of the stronger races on the calendar drawing a nice crowd, maybe 40,000, and everyone enjoys the location and atmosphere, but it’s nothing like Surfers Paradise in its heyday.

As everyone knows, IndyCar is struggling these days, a pale imitation of what it was 20 years ago, and the loss of Surfers Paradise was a classic example of the category’s many failures. Surfers continued to draw big crowds through the turn of the century before tailing off as CART, then Champ Car declined. It’s one of no fewer than 40 venues (street circuits, road courses and oval tracks) that gave up trying to make financial sense out running a CART, Champ Car, IRL or IndyCar race over the past 20 years.

Mansell’s record pole lap from 1993

indycar  Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

Add your comments

8 comments on Nigel Mansell at Surfers Paradise

  1. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 18 March 2013 12:01

    Thanks Gordon, the 1993 one was the first CART race I ever watched on TV and I got hooked forever.
    What amazed me most was Mansell losing places and regaining them many times through the race due to a number of pit stops, overtaking Emmo several times, something I had never seen in F1. I also remember the commentator being shocked by the way Mansell blocked his tyres to overtake Emerson, critizising him because “his tyres must be squared now”.
    The same commentator was shocked again in the 1994 race by Michael Andretti going over the kerbs as he was driving on a dry track, which got him sliding around and risking his victory and prompting his comment: “when is this boy going to learn?”
    Ah, CART memories!

  2. Tom, 18 March 2013 16:16

    Great read Gordon. It’s races like this that made me fall in love with open wheel formula racing. Those were definitely the good old days!

    Still pisses me off that the idiot grandson “saved” everything with the creation of the IRL. Haven’t watched or attended an AOW race since CCWS finally went tits up and sold itself off to the inheritor.

    These days, it’s strictly Formula 1 for us as far as open wheel racing is concerned. Thankfully we have a USGP again in the states.

  3. AJ Ball, 18 March 2013 20:51

    Circa 1993 Indycar rather reminds me of Circa-1993 WRC. Used to be great then somebody had the great idea of trying to ‘fix’ what wasn’t broken. With rallying it was 2 1/2 day events and repeated stages. With Indycar, well we know what happened there. And both Indy and WRC these days still have a lot of interest and fans but manufacturers are mostly staying away and the independents don’t have the money. Shame.

  4. Alwyn Keepence, 19 March 2013 08:34

    I have many fond memories of the Indy Car races at Surfers Paradise, from the first event where I managed to be a guest of the series sponsor PPG. I was even driven on a lap of the circuit in a Ferrari Pace Car by ex Formula One driver, Desire Wilson.
    Nigel Mansell’s debut in ’93 was spectacular, his passing moves breathtaking, and Micheal Andretti’s kerb jumping in ’94 were just as exciting. I remember in one qualifying session seeing clear daylight under his Reynard as he straightlined the Beachside chicane!
    I haven’t bothered with the “V8 Supercar” events which are run on a shortened version of the Indycar circuit.

  5. bryan, 19 March 2013 08:43

    Saw the ’93 race on TV. Mansell’s move on Fittipaldi with what looked like all tyres smoking into the left hander is one of the best overtaking moves you’ll ever see IMO.

  6. Rich Ambroson, 20 March 2013 01:17

    Those were some good looking cars. Got to see them at Long Beach and Laguna Seca.

    Haven’t been to either venue in several years; an ALMS event at Laguna Seca was the most recent.

    This was some top level open wheel racing, and I remember it had BCE’s commercial nerves shaken…

  7. Terry Jacob, 21 March 2013 16:48

    CART racing was great twenty years ago then of course it all went tits-up and what did we get saddled with ? IRL , a stupid spec-car formula designed to get more American talent behind the wheel of America premier single -seater series . Well , that failed on two scores , where are all these hot-shot drivers and where is this premier series these days ? All answers to Tony George .

  8. Steve W, 7 May 2013 08:33

    Mansell damn near won the Indy 500 that year. 1993 and 1999 (when Juan Pablo Montoya came in) were two truly fun years of CART racing for me to follow.

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