His prayers were answered, on both counts. Changes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway reduced the danger to the drivers (some of whom later complained that it was now too safe to be interesting), while the weather warnings were not fulfilled until the party was all over, when a thunderstorm arrived to wash the air clean of methanol and beer fumes.
The pre-race build-up was, in the vernacular, awesome. Imagine the sense of pageantry and fun when the Purdue University All-American Marching Band made its 74th appearance at the race, 150 musicians and 30 majorettes coming down the finishing straight playing 'Louie Louie', with batons twirling.
Afterwards Paul Newman, who had spent the minutes before the race sitting on the tarmac next to the pit wall in conversation with his rookie driver, said he was so excited that he did not think he would stop vibrating until about Thursday, and maybe not until after the weekend. It was the most enthralling Indy 500 he had ever seen; and the most disappointing.
Both his drivers could have won the race. Mario Andretti, in his 28th start, was the leader at 100 miles, 250 miles and 400 miles, and for a long time seemed to be ready to fulfil the romantic dreams of the crowd by guiding his Newman-Haas Lola-Ford to a repeat of his previous win, 24 years ago. Then, when Andretti faltered, Nigel Mansell took over, growing in confidence as he came to terms with the special requirements of a unique track in a unique year.
Their failure had as much to do with the notorious Andretti bad luck and the consequences of Mansell's inexperience as with the tactical acumen of the winner, Emerson Fittipaldi, who waited until lap 184 to take the lead for the first time. The Brazilian had been lurking in the background all the way, but two strokes of brilliance were enough to see off his chief rivals.
First he dealt with Mansell at a green-flag restart on lap 184, coming out of Turn Four with the pedal to the metal in anticipation of the resumption and catching the Englishman unawares. By the time Mansell moved across to block the inside line of Turn One, Fittipaldi had enough momentum going to carry him by on the outside. Second, he used another green- flag trick to see off Arie Luyendyk, himself going for a second win. Again thinking ahead to the restart, Fittipaldi used his position at the head of the bunch to slow the field down in Turn Four. Then, just as Luyendyk was changing down to second gear, Fittipaldi jumped, like a racing cyclist making a break. And that, as Luyendyk said later, was all she wrote.
For Newman, the disappointment came not merely in Mansell's misfortunes but also in the black-flag penalty which disrupted Andretti's progress. The stewards claimed that the Lola had entered the pits while they were closed, which is what happens immediately after an incident on the track, when the yellow flags go out. Andretti claimed that he was already entered in the pit lane when the yellows came out. 'Whoever was the observer down there did not call the thing correctly,' he said.
Newman could add Andretti's sense of injustice to Mansell's three variegated errors: overshooting his pit (as he had done, to similarly calamitous effect, in a Ferrari in the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix), getting outsmarted by Fittipaldi, and then leaving two big black smudges on the wall at Turn Two, bending his wishbones and disabling his final pursuit.
Mansell's mistakes, though, were so characteristic as to be almost admirable. He is not a calculating racer. The blood rushes to his head, and away he goes. He is brave and skilful, and these qualities are sometimes enough to overcome the strategic planning going on in cooler heads, which is why he is loved in Italy. This was his first race on an oval track, it was twice as long as any other race he has ever taken part in, and he undertook it a month after surgery on his lower back. For once he tried to drive as much with his head as with the seat of his pants, restraining himself during the first half of the race, but in the end the real Nigel Mansell came through, for better and worse, and for a third place which seemed the right reward in the circumstances.
Mansell has been more at ease in America than he ever was on the grand prix circuit. That has something to do with the novelty of it, of course. But it also leads to the thought that perhaps it was his bad luck to have been born in England rather than, say, Texas or Kentucky. The American way would have suited him more than the class-ridden society of his homeland, where a combination of background and temperament put him at a disadvantage, making him seem chippy (as snobs describe people they make feel uncomfortable).
In America, he could have grown up without the sense of grievance that led so many Formula One insiders to despise him; his lack of guile would not have seemed so much like clumsiness. He would never have developed the paranoias that combine with his lack of subtlety to make him look a fool in the eyes of those who prefer to admire the feline malevolence of an Ayrton Senna.
The rules are simpler here, and Nigel Mansell is, in the best sense, a simple man. Actually, in different circumstances he would have made a perfect good ol' boy. Perhaps now he'll get the chance.
----------------------------------------------------------------- INDYCAR WORLD SERIES ----------------------------------------------------------------- Leading standings (US unless stated): 1 N Mansell (GB) 50pts; 2 Mario Andretti 43; 3= E Fittipaldi (Bra), A Luyendyk (Neth) 43; 5 R Boesel (Bra) 34; 6 T Fabi (It) 30; 7 B Rahal 24; 8 P Tracy 22; 9 Al Unser Jnr 17; 10= R Gordon, J Vasser 14; 12 S Pruett 12; 13= R Guerrero, E Cheever, S Goodyear (Can) 10; 16= R Buhl, S Brayton 8; 18 M Smith 7; 19= D Sullivan, D Kudrave, H Matsushita (Japan) 5; 22= S Johansson (Swe), John Andretti 3; 24 M Greco 2; 25= R Bentley, Al Unser Snr 1. -----------------------------------------------------------------Reuse content