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Saturday, May 11, 2013

20th ANNIVERSARY of MANSELL MANIA

(In recent weeks I've been interviewed by Robin Miller, for a story that appears in the May issue of Racer, and by John Oreovicz, for an Indy 500 program story. Both are on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Mansell Mania. I lived Mansell Mania first-hand, as PR director for Newman/Haas Racing. The following was published in another forum in September 2003, remembering the 10th anniversary of Nigel's historic PPG Indy Car World series championship. That year also represented the high-water mark for the Indianapolis 500, certainly in terms of worldwide media coverage and TV ratings. Now, another decade later, and with Indy 500 activities underway, it's worth another read.)


Paul Newman called it "The Great Adventure" and the greatest thrill came on Sunday, Sept. 19, 1993.

Nazareth seemed the least likely locale to host sports history this side of Cooperstown, but those who were at the less-than-a-mile Pennsylvania oval that day saw -- in my opinion -- one of the five most significant achievements in racing's modern era.

Nigel Mansell won the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix that afternoon by almost a lap to clinch CART's PPG Indy Car World Series championship. The Formula One title had yet to be determined, so for one remarkable week (until Sept. 26), Mansell possessed both of the world's premier open-wheel crowns.

Others talked about going for such glory. Mansell did it.

Some big-name motorsports executives and pundits didn't believe Carl Haas could get the 1992 world champion's signature on a multi-million-dollar contract -- rich, but far below F1 standards -- that would force him to trade Monaco for Milwaukee and share street courses with superspeedways. But give the often-underappreciated Haas, whose business smarts are longer than his cigars, credit: He had the vision to see the stars were aligned -- Mansell was at odds with Frank Williams and enjoyed family life away from the Isle of Man at his magnificent Clearwater, Fla., estate -- and the opportunity was at hand to bring the Brit Ferrari fans proclaimed Il Leone (The Lion) to America to replace the off-to-McLaren Michael Andretti.

Mansell came to CART with much more than the record-setting nine Grand Prix victories and 14 poles he attained in the Williams-Renault enroute to the '92 title, which he locked-up in August (!), the earliest that had been done since Jackie Stewart in 1971. Even his rivals conceded Nigel was bold and brave (Sports Illustrated termed him the world's "most daring" driver) and that style stirred the public's passions. Mansell Mania, as it was known, was no PR gimmick.

Let's look back on some decade-old snapshots-in-time.

In January, Mansell made his official debut for Newman/Haas Racing on the Phoenix mile. Typically, such a test might have attracted three or four reporters, but for this occasion, 90 media from nine countries were in attendance. Haas whispered to team publicist Michael Knight, "I think this might be bigger than we thought." About 200 interview requests were in-hand before the season started. Knight analyzed it as "auto racing's first 24-hour news cycle" and months later, thinking back on the Fleet Street tabloid scribes' nothing-is-too-sensational mindset, confessed, "I've learned to feel very sorry for Princess Diana."

In Australia, two months thereafter for his initial CART event, Mansell was the fastest qualifier on the streets of Surfers Paradise. After the race-morning warmup, he quietly took aside chief mechanic Tom Wurtz, and handed him a thick wad of cash. "Regardless of what happens today, the boys have done a fantastic job. Make sure they have a good dinner." This continued throughout the year and the entire team enjoyed many a fine filet mignon courtesy of Mansell meal money. (Nigel preferred to eat and retire for the night as early as possible.) Carrying the red No. 5 he made famous in F1, Mansell fell to fourth after the green flag, but soon found his footing and was in the lead by lap 16. Just before one-third distance, he was called in for a stop-and-go penalty for passing under a local yellow (Nigel said he never saw it), but team manager Jim McGee exploited a rulebook loophole and ordered the Kmart Lola Ford-Cosworth to be refueled and new Goodyears fitted. (CART eventually changed the rule.) Mansell regained the top spot after Emerson Fittipaldi's second pit stop, but had to stretch his fuel, and the engine began to sputter entering the last chicane on the final lap. He finished five seconds in front of Fittipaldi and became the first driver ever to claim both the pole and win in his Indy Car debut. Following a quick examination of his numb foot at the circuit's medical tent (a military-style field hospital provided by the Australian army), Mansell was taken by golf cart to the media center. This normally would have been about a three-minute walk, but even with a dozen soldiers clearing a path, it became a 15-minute trip as hundreds of rabid fans cheered and sang and chanted Mansell's name and waved Union Jack flags. Remembering that scene, Knight told ESPN's SportsCenter his thought was, "This is what it must have been like when Elvis was king." (One of Mansell's private pilots had actually worked for Presley.)

Back in Phoenix in April, Mansell was nearly a second quicker than the field in Saturday practice, when he spun backwards and punched a hole in the concrete wall between turns one and two. He was airlifted to a local hospital and kept overnight for observation because of a concussion. In England, the BBC interrupted regular programming for a news flash. Nigel flew home to Florida the next morning as teammate Mario Andretti came back from two laps down to win his 52d -- and last -- race.

In Long Beach, two weeks later, Mansell returned to earn another pole and finished third. Secretly, he made regular visits to the CART medical trailer, where doctors drained fluid from his lower back. This was an injury from the Phoenix crash and, in 10 more days, required surgery which forced Nigel to miss the Indy 500 rookie orientation program.

Mansell had never been inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until he received his doctor's OK to practice. Wednesday, May 12 was a breathtaking whirlwind, as Nigel took the mandatory physical exam, met with USAC officials, rode around the Brickyard in the pace car with Mario Andretti, completed his five-phase rookie test, and eventually stopped with the day's fourth fastest lap, 222.855 mph. The photographers' queue spilled over into Tony Bettenhausen's pit, which was adjacent to Nige's, and the press room had been expanded to accommodate the global journos. Mansell's late-afternoon news conference was, according to then-IMS PR director Bob Walters, "the most packed we had the entire month -- even more than Fittipaldi's, after he'd won." Mansell brought down the house by relating, in an English accent version of a Texas drawl, the advice he'd received from A.J. Foyt: "Just watch it, boy!" The media swooned, which is as rare as a writer turning down a free St. Elmo steak. Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times summed it up this way: "In my 25 years of reporting motorsports, nothing I have seen matches Mansell's talents in switching from Formula One road racing to Indy Car ovals, particularly at Indianapolis, where he was running unbelievable speeds on his first day at the track -- even though he had never seen it before." Bob Markus of the Chicago Tribune added: "There are athletes who grab pressure by the throat and throttle it into submission. There are athletes who aim for the moon and reach for the stars. There are athletes who give the people what they want and then give them more. Make your own list, but put Nigel Mansell on it." In the 500, his first oval race, Nigel led 34 laps but inexperience on a restart with 16 laps remaining dropped him to third place. The $10,000 from Bank One (whose corporate Pooh-Bah mispronounced both ends of the recipient's name in making the announcement) as Rookie of the Year was pocket cash for Mansell, but the honor was meaningful. "This is an award you only get one chance to win," he remarked.

At Milwaukee, a week later, Mansell passed Raul Boesel for the lead with a spectacular move in turn four with 19 laps remaining. This time, he knew how to handle a restart with three to go, and became an oval winner.

A veteran of F1's tire wars, where qualifying rubber had a one-lap useful life span, Mansell was willing to go-for-it-all on those now-or-never occasions. On Detroit's Belle Isle, Nigel made a few of his mechanics recall Babe Ruth's mythic "called shot" home run, by calling the lap he'd drive the quickest. It was good for another pole . . . and just one of several times he radioed the team in advance of a fast lap.

Mansell hadn't tested at Michigan International Speedway, and found the track surface, bruised and beaten by winter weather, not to his liking -- and said so. In just his second 500-mile race, he led 222 of the 250 laps (including the last 167) and won by nine seconds over Newman/Haas mate Andretti, averaging above 188 mph. Of course, there was drama. The Michigan bumps and G-loads and long distance and August heat gave Nigel, like other drivers over the years, a headache. Aspirin was dissolved in the water bottle given Mansell on his last two pit stops, but that distressed his stomach, and he got sick inside his helmet with about 20 laps to go. Earlier in the weekend, he was introduced to Dale Earnhardt (there for the IROC event), and the two quickly developed a mutual admiration society.

Next, in seven days, Mansell marked his 40th birthday with a victory in New Hampshire. It was perhaps CART's most exciting race before use of the Hanford Device. On another mile oval he had never before seen, Nigel grabbed the pole, and fans sung "Happy Birthday" during driver intros. Mansell and Paul Tracy were the only leaders, with Fittipaldi always right there, and Nigel dropped to third during one pit sequence when Wurtz had trouble securing the right-front wheel. Nigel told the crew not to worry, and broke the tension by whistling as he went down the front straight, under yellow. With just four laps remaining, he made an amazing outside-line pass in turn two, and in the winner's circle said: "This is pure racing at its best. I've been in some races where I've been wheel-to-wheel at 200 mph with Ayrton Senna and that doesn't even come close to what we've done today."

Nazareth was Mansell's fifth victory of his historic campaign -- and fourth straight on an oval (!) -- and some of his rivals barely disguised their jealousy of his wealth and world-wide fame. Bobby Rahal's oft-quoted remark: "He puts his pants on one leg at a time, same as I do." David Letterman, however, was an unabashed fan, and welcomed Mansell on his late-night show as "the Michael Jordan of auto racing." Fittipaldi was Nigel's favorite, and even though they had a couple of on-track disputes, Mansell would admit, "I like and respect Emerson too much to be angry with him."

Gene Haskett, then general manager of Michigan Speedway, watched how crowds responded to the Englishman. "Whatever mystique is, Nigel has it," he commented. A few reporters actually made the supreme effort to attend a Kmart store autograph session, to see Mansell Mania for themselves. This is how Forrest Bond described his experience in RaceFax: "Aware of the size of the gathering, Mansell seemed anything but hurried . . . He was, throughout, attentive to each, thoroughly focused on the person before him, frequently joking and obviously enjoying himself. He held babies in his arms, kissing them for photographs that will long remain treasured items in the family album. He was, in short, as far removed from the stereotype of the arrogant and aloof F1 driver as one could imagine. It began to dawn why the Brits have taken him so to their hearts, for he truly has the touch." Dave Kallman's view, in a front-page Milwaukee Journal story: "If his business were music instead of racing, he'd be at least John, Paul, George and Ringo." Even Autosport's Nigel Roebuck, a sometime critic, had to offer a bow: ". . . the magnitude of his achievement can hardly be exaggerated . . . he has shaken everyone with his ability to turn left at colossal speeds. In traffic, particularly, he has had no peer on the ovals. Hats off."

In December, Mansell went to New York City, to be honored as Driver of the Year. He walked through Central Park before the awards luncheon and was amazed that Bernie Ecclestone ever considered it as a Grand Prix site. At the ceremony, Winston Cup titlist Earnhardt made a surprise visit, and admitted, "I had such a blast watching him race in F1. Then he comes over to Indy Cars and kicks tail again. I'm not sure I'd want him to come to NASCAR." Even though Rusty Wallace won 10 times, Benny Parsons conceded, "I have no problem with Mansell as Driver of the Year. The attention he brought to our sport was incredible." USA Today named him one of the "93 Most Compelling People of '93."

In retrospect, it's obvious 1993 was CART's greatest season, with unprecedented levels of public interest and U.S. and international news coverage. Ticket sales were good, sponsorships were strong, and nobody was worried about bad TV ratings. (And announcers didn't feel it necessary to hype-up drivers not household names in their own households.) It is nothing short of stunning to contemplate how far this once proud and mighty series has fallen.

Consider one final fact: Mansell usually took on fields of 28 or 29 cars, driven by undeniable talents such as Fittipaldi, Andretti, Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan, Arie Luyendyk, Robby Gordon, Roberto Guerrero, Teo Fabi, Scott Goodyear and Scott Pruett. Now, one short decade since, CART has desecrated Mansell's Rookie of the Year stats by using them to sell Sebastien Bourdais. The Frenchman goes up against 10 fewer entries, which are steered by the likes of Rodolfo Lavin, Tiago Monteiro, Patrick Lemarie, Joel Camathias, Alex Sperafico, Roberto Gonzales, Alex Yoong, Geoff Boss, Mario Dominguez, Mario Haberfeld, and Gualter Salles. It is a bogus comparison, made in desperation, one sadly repeated by those in the anti-Tony George media who apparently have chosen to ignore the journalistic imperative of context.

Ten years ago, Mansell Mania made CART king. It was, indeed, "The Great Adventure." Cheers, Nigel.

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I sent this out on Twitter last week, but here's my new CompetitionPlus.com column: Yes, NHRA, legitimate/informed criticism can be a healthy thing. I've gotten lots of interesting reactions to this column.
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/25017-michael-knight-will-some-every-truly-understand-journalistic-freedom

[ more next Monday . . . ]