Straight out of Hollywood

When Paul Newman lured F1 champion Nigel Mansell to IndyCar 20 years ago, he promised an adventure. The resulting story was a scriptwriter’s dream
Writer Gordon Kirby

During the 1990s CART’s IndyCar World Series was booming, attracting big fields and a worldwide following with enough prestige to lure defending Formula 1 champion Nigel Mansell. While the Englishman had been bickering with Frank Williams about an F1 contract for 1993, Carl Haas jumped into the game and offered Mansell a deal to compete in America with Newman/Haas Racing, alongside Mario Andretti. The idea appealed, and in those days money wasn’t a problem.

Haas hired Jim McGee to run Newman/Haas. McGee had been Mario Andretti’s chief mechanic from 1965-69 and would go on to become the most successful crew chief/team manager in Indycar history, with 90 wins and nine championship titles to his credit.

“Bringing Nigel over was going to be a big pump for Newman/Haas and Indycar racing,” McGee says. “The time was ripe to do it and Carl needed somebody to manage the situation and make sure Mansell was all right. Mario and I knew each other well and Carl made it clear that my primary job was to look after Nigel. We hit off really well together. 

“Of course, Carl had great sponsors and a great organisation, so for me it was a good opportunity. I think everybody saw it as a big influence on CART’s success, which it was. During that period, CART was really moving forward with crowds and TV.” Indeed, Mansell’s arrival pushed CART to new heights of worldwide interest and Fleet Street’s press pack arrived to cover his every move.

Using Newman/Haas’s new Ford/Cosworth XB turbo engine, the McLaren-bound Michael Andretti had dominated CART in 1992, taking seven poles and leading 1136 laps, more than half the season. Unreliability cost him the title to Bobby Rahal, but that had been addressed by 1993 and Mansell stepped into a car that was ready to win the championship. 

A key element was the fact Mario Andretti and Mansell could barely tolerate each other. Andretti first encountered Mansell during his World Championship-winning Lotus days. Mansell joined Lotus in 1980 as a test driver, and from day one he and Andretti took a dislike for each other. Andretti points out that the pair operated entirely separately in ’93, not once sitting down together to debrief with their respective engineers. “It was a perfect example of a two-driver team that was as divided as it could possibly be,” he says. “The atmosphere was not good. It was not fun to go racing like that.”

CART’s season-opener in 1993 was on the street circuit at Surfers Paradise, Australia, a perfect place for Mansell’s debut. He was in the mood for a battle, beating Penske team-mates Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy to pole. 

He was beaten away from the rolling start by Fittipaldi and Tracy, then fell to fourth before fighting his way into the lead by outbraking Fittipaldi in a cloud of tyre smoke.

It transpired that Mansell had passed Fittipaldi under a yellow flag and he subsequently served a stop-go penalty. Mansell then brushed the wall, puncturing a tyre and falling to fourth after a stop for fresh rubber. But again he charged into the lead, winning by 3sec from Fittipaldi. It was a rousing start.

During practice for the next race at Phoenix, Mansell learned a big lesson about ovals. His bravery got the better of him as he entered the first turn way too quickly and spun backwards into the wall. It was an extremely hard hit, punching a hole in the cement and putting Mansell out of action for a few weeks. He was knocked unconscious and suffered a couple of cracked vertebrae and some muscle damage.

“The toughest thing that year was coming back from the accident,” Mansell said later. “Some people didn’t seem to appreciate how bad it was. It took a little time for me to get over the pains and be 100 per cent fit. That was the biggest thing I achieved that year.”

McGee had warned Mansell to be careful. “At Phoenix he just made a huge mistake,” he says. “I told him, ‘Nigel, you’re going to crash.’ But he had a theory that he knew exactly what he was doing. He claimed he, Senna and Prost had developed a technique that enabled them to get away with this type of driving, where they had a wide entry into the corner and really jerked the car down. In those days the cars were blowing the exhausts through the tunnels and as long as you kept your foot in it created more downforce. But the moment you got out of the throttle, the downforce would disappear. After that accident, Nigel realised he was going to have to adjust his theory.”

With Mansell out of action, Andretti came through to score his first win in four and a half years – his 52nd and final Indycar victory.

At Long Beach two weeks later, Mansell bounced back to take pole from Tracy and Fittipaldi while Andretti qualified fifth. Tracy took a dominant win while Mansell hung on for third, despite considerable back pain.

Mansell underwent surgery before practice started at Indianapolis in May and that prevented his participation in rookie orientation. He also missed most of the opening week of practice, but when he finally arrived he immediately came to grips with the speedway.

Andretti was the pacesetter at Indianapolis through the opening week and was provisionally quickest for six hours on Pole Day, but Arie Luyendyk made a late qualifying run in slightly better conditions to pip him. Meantime, Mansell had no problem settling in and qualified eighth, learning all the time.

The race developed into a fierce battle between the Lola-Fords of Andretti, Mansell, Luyendyk and Raul Boesel, plus Fittipaldi’s Penske-Chevy and Al Unser Jr’s Lola-Chevy. Andretti led 72 laps, more than anyone, but a late tyre choice error cost him the race.

Fittipaldi and Luyendyk got the jump on Mansell at the final restart. Fittipaldi pulled away, building a cushion to Luyendyk. In hot pursuit with just seven laps to go, Mansell brushed the wall and bent his rear suspension. So it was that Fittipaldi drove on to his second Indy 500 win, while Mansell hung on to finish third behind Luyendyk. 

Mansell and Andretti were now first and second in the championship, with Fittipaldi and Luyendyk tied for third. Tracy was eighth after crashing at Indy and, at the following weekend’s Milwaukee Mile, Mansell profited from another Tracy mistake to score his first oval win from Boesel, Fittipaldi and the recovering Tracy. 

Mansell finished second to Fittipaldi at Portland two weeks later, while Tracy and Fittipaldi took back-to-back one-twos for Penske in Cleveland and Toronto. Mansell finished third at Cleveland with Andretti fifth, but Toronto was a disaster for Newman/Haas because the team struggled with its dampers. Andretti plugged on to eighth while Mansell retired with an overheated wastegate. That cost him the championship lead to Fittipaldi.

Newman/Haas bounced back in style in the Michigan 500 at the end of July. Andretti qualified on the pole, setting a world closed-course speed record of 234.275mph, with Mansell second. The Newman/Haas Lola-Fords dominated the race while Fittipaldi qualified 15th and finished outside the points. It was Mansell’s second oval victory, but afterwards he feigned exhaustion on the podium – much to his team-mate’s disgust. He had recaptured the series lead, however, and spoke of the pride he felt in the wake of his victory.

“Until you’ve averaged 233-234mph laps in qualifying and 228mph laps in the race, around a high-banked oval with significant surface undulations, you haven’t a clue what it’s like,” he said. “It’s daunting, frightening and exhilarating. It’s also challenging and satisfying. It’s all those words. It’s just mind-boggling.”

Mansell won again next time out at New Hampshire, beating Tracy and Fittipaldi after an exciting, race-long battle. “That was my best performance of the year, no question,” Mansell said, “and one of the top three races in my career. Following Paul and Emerson, I learned how to race on a one-mile oval in New Hampshire. It was great, pure racing at its best. Running at 200mph with Ayrton Senna in F1 didn’t come close.”

The Lola-Cosworth was quick on superspeedways in particular, because the engine had more power than the Ilmor/Chevrolet and the Lola generated a little less downforce than the Penske. The Penskes’ aero advantage meant they were quicker on short ovals and most road circuits, however. 

Tracy beat Mansell soundly at Elkhart Lake, with Fittipaldi fifth, but neither Mansell nor Fittipaldi ran well on the bumpy streets of downtown Vancouver. Both were lapped en route to sixth and seventh as Al Unser Jnr triumphed. Tracy suffered electrical failure while running second in Vancouver and thus dropped out of the championship reckoning. 

One weekend later in Mid-Ohio, Mansell and Tracy collided at the first turn. The Canadian raced away in the lead, but Mansell was left with a bent steering arm and a few turns later damaged his front wing when he ran into Arie Luyendyk. He eventually scraped home 12th, salvaging one point. Tracy had the race in the bag, but crashed while trying to lap Scott Pruett and that allowed Fittipaldi to take victory and keep his championship hopes alive.

The next round was at the frantic little Nazareth tri-oval in the Andrettis’ home town and Fittipaldi was powerless to resist Mansell’s run to the championship. Mansell trailed the Penskes in the opening stages before storming past to score his fourth straight oval win. He lapped everyone but eventual runner-up Scott Goodyear. Tracy hung on to take third while Fittipaldi finished fifth – insufficient to keep him in the title fight. Mansell thus became the first driver to win back-to-back F1 and Indycar titles. He was also the first Englishman (and rookie) to take the American crown since Dario Resta won the 1916 AAA Indycar championship. Quite an accomplishment.

The season finale took place at Laguna Seca, where Tracy and Fittipaldi ran away while Mansell fell to fifth before colliding with a backmarker. Tracy equalled Mansell’s tally of five wins and Fittipaldi wound up just eight points shy of Mansell in the championship, with Tracy taking third. 

McGee was very impressed with Mansell. “It was amazing how he adapted and how quick he was,” he says. “He was really extraordinary as far as catching on to the ovals. He was like Rick [Mears]. He knew how to get the car turned down in the middle of the corner so that his exit was straight. He didn’t arc the car coming off the corner and if you can do that the car doesn’t understeer and gains speed quicker.

“His driving ability was such that he could compensate for deficiencies. He would change his style. It used to be a little frustrating from an engineer’s standpoint because they could do quite a few things to the car and he would still run at the same speed. If the car felt loose, he’d change his style. If it had understeer, he would adapt accordingly. 

“Sometimes that was a little aggravating because he made it harder for engineers to learn what the car really needed. But in a race it was great. If the car wasn’t quite right he could change his style and get the most from it.”

Mansell’s second and final Indycar campaign would be nothing like as impressive. The new Penske was quicker than Lola’s 1994 chassis and Mansell seemed to lose interest as the year wore on. He was able to take three poles, but didn’t win any races and finished a distant eighth in the championship. By the end of the season he had decided to go back to F1. He contested four Grands Prix for Williams during 1994 and won the season-closer in Australia before signing with McLaren for 1995. He didn’t fit the car at the start of the season, however, and after a couple of indifferent races he quit F1 for good.

Looking back, Mansell’s two years in CART coincided with the peak of global interest in Indycar racing. Politics and power struggles have since diluted what was once a very special form of motor racing, something that lured and enthralled a defending World Champion.

They were great days and are still very fondly remembered.