Motor Racing: Where history goes by at 240mph: Today's Indianapolis 500 motor race is what Nigel Mansell left Formula One for - and it's quite a lot to take on. Richard Williams reports from the track they call the Brickyard

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IF HE really wants to find out about the Indy 500, Nigel Mansell should try asking Gary Bettenhausen. It's his obsession.

Gary wasn't at the track the day his father, Tony, died there while testing a friend's car in 1961. He and his mother and his little brother, nine-year-old Tony Jr, were at home on the farm in Tinley Park, Illinois, packing up the car ready to drive the 150 miles to Indianapolis to join their father at the next day's qualifying sessions.

Tony Bettenhausen, a two-time national racing champion, had raced at Indianapolis every year but one since 1946, finishing second in 1955. Little Gary had watched him every year from infield at Turn One, picnicking with his family, their car parked against the fence.

The year his father died, Gary said, he had the best car in the field, the Autolite Special. But he was killed in practice when something on his friend's car broke and sent him into the concrete wall on the finishing straight, demolishing the wall and five reinforcing posts. So his face was never carved in solid silver on the 4ft-high cup alongside those of every Indy 500 winner since 1911.

Tony Bettenhausen kept his sons away from racing cars. 'He wanted us to be farmers,' Gary said last week. 'Back then, racing was more dangerous than it is today. It seemed like it wasn't unusual for five, six, seven drivers to be killed every season. I never drove a race car till I was 21. I always wanted to. He just made sure I didn't get the opportunity.'

After he was killed, though, Gary made up for lost time. He built his own stock car, graduated to midgets, and within a few years he was lining up at Indianapolis for the first of his 20 starts in the 500. In 1972 he led 138 of the 200 laps, heading for a win until ignition trouble stopped him with half an hour to go. He finished third in 1980, the year before his younger brother joined him on the grid. Tony Jr has twice finished in the top 10.

'It's the most important thing in our lives, for our whole family, as far as trying to accomplish something,' Gary said. 'It's like a dream that's always one step away from us.'

Gary Bettenhausen is 51 now, one of three grandfathers in the starting line-up for this year's Indianapolis 500. Today he and Tony Jr will line up close to each other in the middle of the grid, still dreaming their father's dream.

THREE grandfathers] Imagine that in the sleek, sophisticated, youth-marketed world of Formula One. No wonder Nigel Mansell says that everything about Indianapolis is a new experience.

'Even the first time you see it, from 5,000ft up through the window of a plane, this place is daunting,' he said last week during one of the many press conferences that filled his off-track hours. 'To use their word, it's awesome. And it's everywhere. It was on TV when I went to sleep last night, and when I woke up this morning there it was again.'

The ticket touts have been camped out for days along Crawfordsville Road, all the way from the track gates to the interstate. More than half a million people will come to the vast concrete bowl of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Memorial Day morning, about 400,000 to sit in permanent grandstands, making this, in terms of paid attendance, the world's largest sporting event. In that sense, as in others, it's the quintessential American event: the biggest this, the most that. Beyond all the superlatives, though, is a more profound quality: an awareness of its own history. Which is where the senior citizens come in.

The other two grandfathers in the race are Mario Andretti, Mansell's team-mate, and Al Unser, 53 and 54 years old respectively. Andretti won in 1969, while Unser is a four-time winner, the last in 1987. Both of them also have sons in today's field. These men symbolise the extraordinary sense of continuity that links Al Unser Jr, 'Little Al', last year's winner in a Galmer-Chevrolet, with Ray Harroun, who drove a bright yellow Marmon Wasp to victory in the first 500 in 1911.

Back in Harroun's day, the track was made of bricks: more than three million of them. It's still known as the Brickyard, although the bricks were replaced by asphalt in 1937. Typically of Indianapolis, though, a strip of bricks one yard wide was retained on the starting line, for history's sake. Stand downwind today, and there's a sharp slap above the engine roar every time the fat tyres of today's racers pass across it at 240mph. When you hear that slap, you're supposed to think of Ray Harroun, and Ralph DePalma and Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw and Troy Ruttman and Sam Hanks and Bill Vukovich, and all the other heroes who've passed that way.

The Speedway is full of cherished rituals and institutions. There are obvious things, like the instruction with which raceday commences: 'Gentlemen, start your engines.' (This year, in recognition of Lyn St James on the seventh row, it will be 'Lady and gentlemen . . . ') There are less obvious things, like the paragraph in the will of the circuit's late owner, Tony Hulman, that keeps the general admission price to an affordable level, dollars 20 this year. And there are completely unmissable things, like the presence of Linda Vaughn, 'Miss Hurst Shifter' in the days when Mario Andretti was a rookie, now parading her cantilevered cleavage, candy-spun blonde bouffant and hand-tooled cowboy boots up and down the pit lane, a majestic cross between Mae West and Dolly Parton, graciously acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. ('She's got more racing history than A J Foyt,' one old- timer murmured appreciatively, referring to another Speedway legend, the 58-year-old Texan who started 35 races, won four, and announced his retirement from the cockpit earlier this month.)

The Indy 500 has changed less than any other historic motor race. Less than Le Mans, which has chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. Less than Monaco, where the track now winds round a swimming pool. The Speedway was designed as a two-and-a-half mile oval, with two long straights and two 'short chutes' joined by four symmetrical corners banked at an angle of just over 9 degrees. That's how it was, and that's how it is. Ray Harroun ran 200 laps around it; that, too, is the test facing Nigel Mansell today.

THE BRITISH invaded America in 1964, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blew the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons into the weeds. It was also the year when Jim Clark led the Indy 500 in a little rear-engined Lotus, losing to A J Foyt only when a tyre blew. Foyt's victory, his first, was also the last for an old-fashioned Indy roadster, its primitive four-cylinder engine located at the front and its driver sitting upright in a roomy, upholstered cockpit, wrestling with a truck-size steering wheel. Clark won in '65, and in '66 it was Graham Hill's turn. By that time, the home team had cottoned on, and the roadsters were gone for good.

Indianapolis has always attracted foreign interest. For one thing, there's the prize fund, which started at dollars 25,000 in 1911 and this year will be more than dollars 7.5m. The French drivers Jules Goux and Rene Thomas won there before the First World War. But when Clark and Hill arrived, the race had become an American monopoly. And from the late Sixties to the late Eighties, that's what it became once again.

Emerson Fittipaldi, a retired Formula One world champion, broke the US stranglehold in 1988. A year later the Brazilian was followed into Victory Lane by Arie Luyendyk, a long- haired Dutchman who is in pole position for today's race. And the influx started, mostly of drivers whose Formula One careers had stalled: Derek Daly, Teo Fabi, Raul Boesel, Roberto Guerrero, Nelson Piquet.

Nigel Mansell is different, though. He is the first reigning Formula One world champion to commit himself to a whole season in Indycars, and his presence is evoking the usual mixed emotions. 'Mansell Loathed By Many, Adored By Many More' was the headline in the Indianapolis Star last Thursday, and the crowds outside the Newman-Haas team motor home, which he shares with his team-mate, Mario Andretti, have been the thickest all

week. It's not all goodwill, though. 'There are a lot of people shooting for him,' said Eddie Cheever, another ex-F1 pilot in today's race. He was putting it mildly.

In this essentially unpretentious world, Mansell arrived surrounded by hype and his usual penchant for melodrama. At Indianapolis, the circuit owner lent him a private jet. The organising body of the Indycar series broke precedent by allowing him to carry the racing number - 'red 5' - that he'd had in Formula One. And he was being paid more than anybody else, by a long way. Then he went and had a dream start to the season, taking his Lola-Ford to victory on the street circuit at Surfers' Paradise.

At Phoenix, though, in his first experience of an oval track, he did what many cynics had expected. Trying to use aggressive road-racing techniques to control the car, he spun into the wall at 180mph and damaged his lower back. He was in pain when he returned to the track two weeks later, for a road race at Long

Beach, coming third after several incidents involving other drivers, notably one in which Al Unser Jr ended up in the wall. Since then there has been surgery at Indianapolis Methodist Hospital and extensive physiotherapy at his home in Clearwater, Florida, described - as is his way - in stitch-by-stitch detail to the attendant members of the British press.

Some of the American drivers are glad to see him among them, pleased by anything that adds to the international standing of their series. But a hint of other, half-buried, emotions came last week from Danny Sullivan, a matinee-idol type who raced in grands prix in the early Eighties before returning to America to win the 500 in 1985. 'Nigel started off with a bang - pole position and a win,' Sullivan told reporters. 'He also started off with the best team. Then he didn't do himself any good at Phoenix. He finished third at Long Beach, but he wasn't a force to be reckoned with there. There were people all over him. If Little Al had got by, he'd have smoked him. Nigel's got a great car, and he's got Mario helping him, but there's 500 miles of race to be run here.'

Resentment mounted when Mansell's injury forced him to miss the 'rookie test' undergone by every newcomer to Indianapolis. When the organisers rescheduled it for his benefit, objections were raised. 'There was a lot of sour grapes,' Mansell said after the final warm-up session on Thursday. 'Two drivers - I'm not going to tell you who they were - actually did their utmost to protest me out of the race. Isn't that unbelievable?'

THEY ARE heavier, slower around corners, and far less advanced technically than Formula One cars. But driving an Indycar around an oval track at an average of 225mph presents a highly specialised challenge, one for which nothing in Nigel Mansell's previous experience has prepared him. 'Racing is racing,' Eddie Cheever said, 'but oval racing is a totally separate issue. You don't learn anything in Formula One that can possibly help you.'

'The cars do all the work here,' said Jim Crawford, a Lancastrian who came here 10 years ago and is alongside Cheever on the back of today's grid. 'You can't just get hold of the car and drive it faster. You have to know how to make minute adjustments.'

'The littlest thing here can be very important,' Gary Bettenhausen said. 'It's about experience, about getting up in the morning and looking at the weather and seeing where the wind's blowing from, and knowing from that what you can expect on the race track.'

Anyone who thinks that Formula One equals sophistication while Indycar racing equals brute force would learn a lesson here. 'The secret of this race is not how rough you are, it's how smooth you are,' A J Foyt, who is not exactly Cary Grant, pointed out. 'There's a lot more finesse required because there's less margin for error,' said Eddie Cheever, pointing to the concrete wall. 'Mansell's used to manhandling a car,' said Jeff Andretti, Mario's youngest, 'and at Phoenix it bit him. Now he knows that he has to adapt.'

Mansell will be 40 in August, but this month he has been back in school. So far his experience amounts to 258 practice laps of the Brickyard - only just over a full race distance. Today, if he completes the 500, he will have to race for somewhere around three and a half hours, or twice the length of the longest event he has ever run in his life. He has to learn about driving behind a pace car under yellow lights, about making eight or nine pit stops for fuel and tyres, about altering the aerodynamics of the car to cope with changing conditions, about the problems of trying to overtake in the turbulence generated by cars running at such high speeds ('It's like being behind a jumbo jet,' Mario Andretti said).

Even the veterans are anxious about today's race. In an effort to reduce speeds, the authorities changed the car specifications to reduce the downforce which sucks the car on to the track. This means that the drivers are having to lift off the throttle into the turns for the first time in two or three years. More controversially, there has been the removal of the 'apron', a strip of tarmac below the white line that marks the inside of the four left-handed turns. Indy drivers had got used to dropping down on to the apron, enabling them to go through the corners two and three abreast. 'We have a pretty narrow groove now,' Gary Bettenhausen said. 'It looks like it has to be single file through the turns.' If a driver hasn't clearly won a corner, Mario Andretti thought, 'he'll just have to give in and line up.'

But try to imagine 33 cars, three abreast in 11 rows, taking a rolling start at 100mph-plus and all trying to get into Turn One at the same time. 'There won't be an escape route this year if someone does the Watusi at the start,' said A J Foyt, who has seen a few exotic routines at Turn One in his time and who knows that one of his team's drivers, the fast but hot-headed 24-year-old Robby Gordon, is among the prime candidates to initiate mayhem if he doesn't control his natural urges.

It's hard to tell a racing driver to slow down, though. If they were prudent by nature, they'd be you or me. With his 35 years of experience, A J Foyt can try to counsel Robby Gordon that 'this race doesn't start until you've done 400 miles,' but that won't prevent the old red mist coming down when it's mano-a-mano on lap one and the overpaid limey's in his sights. And as far as Nigel Mansell is concerned, raw aggression is the quality that got him where he is in the first place.

'Nigel's a bulldog,' Eddie Cheever observed. 'If he can't get somebody to move out of the way, he moves them out of the way. That's the way he reacts in a racing car, and it's the way he makes all his decisions. He's not somebody to back away from a good challenge. I don't know many Formula One drivers who'd have taken the challenge of coming here. I know Alain Prost would never, ever, ever put himself in that position.'

Wisely, Indy's most celebrated rookie has been underplaying his chances this week. But it doesn't suit him. Humility never got Nigel Mansell anywhere; he's no good at it. And he knows, when all is said and done, that he is the world champion, and if it is to mean anything then he can't just trundle modestly around in the midfield, keeping out of the way. He has to live up to his billing.

In the end, he's a racing driver. And when he comes round for the starter's green flag this morning, in front of half a million people, maybe he'll feel the way Tony Bettenhausen's elder son does. 'This is the one that people remember,' Gary Bettenhausen said, sniffing the air. 'This is the only one that counts.'

(Photograph omitted)

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