Postcard from America

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Going, but not forgotten

Nigel Mansell is leaving IndyCar racing behind, and will contest the final three World Championship Grands Prix for Williams. From the triumph of 1993 to a lacklustre 1994, how will his American sojourn be remembered?

The post-Mansell era officially began at the Vancouver Molson Indy just days after what we had long known to be inevitable was confirmed in a pair of communiqués issued by Newman/Haas Racing and Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

“Newman Haas Racing today announced that Nigel Mansell will not return to the team for the 1995 PPG IndyCar World Series”, read the missive from Lincolnshire, Illinois “Carl A Haas said on behalf of Newman/Haas racing that Mansell has expressed a strong desire to return to Formula One racing. Haas said the team does not wish to stand in Mansell’s way and his release will become effective after the final race of the 1994 IndyCar season which is October 9 at Laguna Seca Raceway.’

Doubtless Nigel Mansell’s departure from IndyCar racing can’t come soon enough for Emerson Fittipaldi (who Mansell punted off at the final corner at Vancouver) or for Mario Andretti whose arrivederci tour has been blighted by a bitter feud with his soon-to-be ex-team-mate. Although Mario is hardly blameless in the matter especially after giving Nigel “le Chop” at New Hampshire he will enjoy the last laugh on October 9 when he and Mansell both run their last IndyCar races at Laguna Seca. Mario will probably have to hire the Spruce Goose to carry all his awards and mementoes back to Nazareth, while Mansell will probably get a polite thank you for services rendered over the past couple of seasons.

The fact remains, however, that the sport of IndyCar racing has benefited immensely from Mansell’s presence the past couple of seasons. Because for all the huffing and puffing about the PPG IndyCar World Series and the world’s largest single-day sports event, IndyCar racing was one of racing’s best kept secrets until Mansell arrived on the scene exactly two years ago at Laguna Seca.

Sure, sports fans around the world knew about the Indianapolis 500. But, like many people even in North America, they had no idea what IndyCar racing was about the other 364 days of the year. With Mansell’s arrival exotic locales such as Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Lexington, Ohio and Loudon, New Hampshire became familiar names to motor sport fans around the world, if not the public at large. What’s more, Mansell’s defection from F1 to IndyCar racing was a tremendous boost for racing’s profile in that lifeblood of sport in the 1990s television.

In 1992, the last year of the “pre-Mansell era,” IndyCar racing was televised to some 70 countries outside North America. That number jumped to 85 in 1993 and this year. IndyCar racing is seen in more than 120 countries outside North America. Or from another perspective, IndyCar estimates that 11 per cent of its season-long credentials for writers and 13% for photographers were issued for publications that likely wouldn’t have been covering the sport without Mansell.

And just imagine what a blow it would have been for IndyCar racing if 1993 was only remembered for Michael Andretti’s difficulties in F1. Although Mansell’s performance last year caused many an IndyCar driver and pundit to re-evaluate the relative strengths of IndyCar racing versus F1, the sport as a whole made significant strides thanks to his presence. . . and 1994 has gone a long way towards redressing the impression that the Yanks can’t hold a candle to Mansell.

But 1993 was a special year, no doubt about it, Mansell brought a refreshing new perspective to the sport and it was always interesting to listen to his reaction to each new venue, positive and negative, and to watch his growing appreciation, respect and expertise in oval track racing. Who will forget that moment in practice at Phoenix when the KMart/Texaco Lola stewed sideways and backed into the wall? As a noted team owner observed, what with Mansell’s win in Australia and setting the pace in practice at PIR, more that one IndyCar driver had to be wondering if maybe this was all a little easier than they’d made it seem over the years. . .

Or who could forget those last laps at Indianapolis when it became quite clear Mansell was fully capable of winning the first oval track race of his life and on that most hallowed ground of American racing?

The list goes on. . . Mansell’s first oval win at Milwaukee, the controversial start at Detroit, his sprawling entry into the press room at Cleveland, his magnificent wins at Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth. New Hampshire, in particular, will be forever etched in the memory not only for the sensational three-way duel between Mansell, Fittipaldi and Tracy but for Mansell’s eloquent expression of his unbridled enthusiasm for racing on a one-mile oval.

As we’ve said before, 1993 was always going to be a tough act to follow. Indeed, one could argue things started going downhill once Mansell clinched the PPG title at Nazareth, for his performance at Laguna Seca last year was rather ordinary.

Since then, we have witnessed the overwhelming superiority of Marlboro Penske Racing and Al Unser Jnr in particular but even when Penske was not up to speed yet in Surfers Paradise Mansell was soundly beaten by Michael Andretti the man who had even more to prove in 1994 than Nigel had in 1993.

Mansell has always been a man who needs to be needed, and the sight of Dee Ann and Barbara Andretti cheering their son/brother in his efforts to dislodge him (Mansell) from the pole had to be disconcerting, if not surprising. Thereafter the Penskes have been dominant to be sure and, often as not, Mansell has headed the chase. But only on rare occasions has he been able to carry the fight to Penske the way he did in ’93 and, as this went to press, with two races remaining, he had still to win a race. (Nazareth took place on September 18, as MOTOR SPORT was being printed.) Time and again he has emphasised that as a professional he doesn’t have the luxury of getting down at the prospects of fighting the unequal fight with Penske and, despite what the naysayers might believe, he has acquitted himself as a professional.

But sometimes that’s not enough. The enthusiasm, the passion that was so evident in Mansell’s driving last year has been missing in 1994. The turning point almost certainly came in May when Dennis Vitolo crash-landed on Mansell’s roll-hoop entering the pit lane during the Indianapolis 500. Or was that just the straw that broke the camel’s back? In the wake of the tragic events at Imola and the subsequent intensification of efforts to get him back to F1, was Mansell already yearning for greener pastures, unwilling to put up with the prospects of battling Penske Racing into the future, unwilling to do so in an environment in which he found himself mixing it up with journeymen at 220 mph?

Only Mansell knows for sure, but from June onwards the 1994 version of Nigel Mansell has been a shadow of his 1993 self, and is it just a coincidence that in the aftermath of his cameo appearance at the French Grand Prix he has just two finishes to his credit?

No doubt Mansell won’t be missed much by the press who dealt with him week in, week out. He was agreeable enough, indeed downright entertaining at times, during the official press conferences. But he never took a shine to the informal, on-the-hoof interviews that are the stuff of most relationships between the motorsports press and most IndyCar drivers; or maybe it’s just that the reporters couldn’t be bothered wading through all the handlers and camp followers, to say nothing of his own melodramatics.

“Interviewing Mansell is like trying to talk with a boa constrictor,” said one newspaper reporter, who had no axe to grind, in Vancouver.

On the other hand, those who had the time, patience and opportunity to get to know him well, from his quasi-protégé Bryan Herta to the staff at Newman/Haas, Texaco and KMart, speak of Mansell’s generosity and kindness. . . Those people apart, Mansell won’t be much missed by the IndyCar community. But make no mistake, he will be remembered. D.P.

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