The one that got away: Arie Lutendyk: 1988 Portland CART
Danny Sullivan’s Penske was in his sights, but when it came to the crunch the Dutchman’s Lola let him down he tells Adam Cooper
“I first raced in the CART Indycar series in 1984,and by ’87 I was starting to run consistently in the top five with Ron Hemelgarn, which was not a major team in US single-seater racing. That fell apart at the end of the year and for ’88 we put together a deal with Dick Simon, which was another very small operation.
“We had a few good mechanics, but we didn’t have a race engineer. But Dick knew a lot and we got a lot of help from Lola. It was not a very reliable car and we didn’t have the best pitstops. We had some ‘weekend warriors’ come over just to do the race, and you can never get your act together like that. But we knew it and we did with it what we could.
“Nevertheless, we had many races where we ran strongly against teams like Penske. In the first race, in Phoenix, I was leading, but we had a huge pit fire and I had to jump out of the car. At Indy, I was running second, but had a shunt at a restart when another guy went and then stopped. At Milwaukee, I was in second place behind Rick Mears, holding my own, when something caught fire on the car.
“So we’d had a lot of competitive races that year, but no results. After Milwaukee, my sponsor, the owner of Provimi Veal, was so disappointed for me. He had just bought a new BMW, one of those nice 7-Series. He said, ‘If you win a race this year, I’ll buy you one of these cars.’ I don’t know if he wanted to motivate me, but I didn’t need it!
“Then we went to Portland. We were on a really small budget and couldn’t even afford to take the motorhome there because it was so far from our base. I missed the whole of the first qualifying session on Friday because of a problem. I came back on Saturday and only lost the pole by a few thousandths. Straight off the trailer that car was really good, and that’s rare.
“Danny Sullivan’s Penske led from the start, but I got past him around lap 14. The car was hooked up, the handling was just unbelievable. I could do almost anything with it. It was really good under braking everything was just perfect.
“I think I had a pretty good lead in the first stint but, when we came in for the first pitstop, in the back of my mind I thought we’d be a few seconds slower than the other guys. However, I kept the lead through the first two stops, until, at the last stop, Sullivan got ahead.
‘Then I started closing on Danny quite a bit, until all of a sudden I lost third gear. That’s when I knew that I couldn’t really challenge him for the win. I still ran a decent pace without that gear, but then, with maybe seven or eight laps to go, the damn thing started to misfire. I was able to nurse it home and was relieved to get second place. Sullivan hadn’t won a race for Penske for more than two years, and he chose this one!
“I was on my way home when it suddenly occurred to me, ‘Holy shit! I’ve just missed out on that frigging BMW, too.’
“For most of my CART career I was in underdog-type teams. It might have made a big difference to my career if I’d had more luck that year, because then I might have been able to move onto one of the bigger teams. It’s funny how car owners see you race and run up front but, if you don’t actually have the results, it’s like it didn’t happen. In those days the top seats were all occupied by guys that never quit racing — there was never really an opening for a guy like me. You always have to prove yourself with results and I didn’t have any results to help my cause.
“I finally got that first win at Indy two years later. The thing that always bugged me was, coming from Europe, I should have got a road course win in CART, but I never did get it. In all those years of racing, Portland ’88 was the closest I got. It was a performance that came so easily. The car was so good it kind of gave me wings. It should have been a victory for sure. But it didn’t happen.”