EVERY SHOW NEEDS A STAR
Never been to Indianapolis? You must. It is one of the great motor racing occasions.
In the spring of 19931 was working on the first Goodwood Festival of Speed. Seven days a week, eight if possible, day and night. Then, out of the blue, Lord March asked me to go to the Indianapolis 500 where we would be guests of the Newman-Haas team. Part of the plan was to study the American way, how they produced a spectacle on a grand scale and used the history of the place to keep traditions alive alongside the modern race.
You will recall that this was the year when rookie Nigel Mansell so nearly came and conquered the big race. He was reigning Formula 1 World Champion, having won nine races in 1992, a record at the time. He was BBC Sports Personality of the Year for the second time. His face adorned commemorative coinage in the Isle of Man. He’d been made a Member of the British Empire. He’d won from pole at Surfers Paradise, his first ever CART race. At the end of ’92 he’d fallen out with Williams but, hey, the man was on a high of highs.
Walking into the paddock at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway there he was, all smiles and charm. He showed me the coins, glinting gold in a rather tacky gift set. In the relative calm of the Newman-Haas encampment Our Nige, or ‘Their Nige’ now, seemed at ease, joshing with mechanics in that down-home way he sometimes has. On the other side of the fence the media was in a frenzy, jostling for a few words from the moustachioed hero.
“Well, we’ve made a new life here, we’re part of the family, and F1 is in the past,” he told me. “We can’t speak about what happened with Williams but we’re happy, we’re here to win.” Team-mate Mario Andreffi was less forthcoming. They’d fleetingly been team-mates at Lotus in 1980. “Yeah, well, he knows how to pull the team around him, get what he wants, but it ain’t gonna be like it was with Ronnie (Peterson), that’s for sure.” Mansell’s ‘Red Five’, remember, was on the car recently vacated by Michael, son of Mario, who’d gone to F1. Carl Haas, meanwhile, just smiled, one corner of his mouth chewing on a cigar. “Yeah, we’re happy, we just need to give him the car to win. Our Lola can do that.” Sponsor K-Mart was the cat with all the cream. Every breath, every step their new driver took was a photo opportunity. The previous month Mansell had crashed heavily at Phoenix, badly injuring his back. Undeterred, he was third at Long Beach and came to Indiana for the month of May ready to do baffle in The Big One.
Race day dawned bright and sunny. A police escort led us to the Speedway from our downtown hotel, Haas silently chewing his cigar as we sped through those famous gates. In the paddock there was Paul Newman, playing cards. He looked up, shook hands, put down another card. I asked if I could play and was politely refused. Instead I sat and watched Coo/ Hand Luke win the game. I would not have liked to play him at poker.
Then, under a baking Indiana sun, it was time for “Gentlemen, start your engines”. The noise was just incredible. Not an empty seat in the house as the cars swept over the bricks for the first of 200 laps, Mansell right on the pace, leading for 34 laps. Then, on lap 184, a breathless voice from the cockpit of Red Five. “When do I go on the re-start? They’re both sides of me.” Emerson Fiffipaldi and Arie Luyendyk had him snared in a sandwich. On the short chute between Turns 3 and 4 they jumped him, leaving Mansell a flustered third. Chasing them down he brushed the wall with 10 laps to go. “I’ve hit the wall, hit the wall.” Another yellow, victory snatched from his grasp, outfoxed by more experienced men.
But he went on to win the championship, the first man to be simultaneously World Champion and lndycar Champion, a feat only he could describe as being “a double World Champion”.
A memorable Indianapolis 500. As Bobby Rahal says, “You just gotta go to Indy, you gotta be there.”