WITH THE approach of the annual Gold Coast week of racing, it takes me back to a time when a Formula 1 World Champion put American open wheel racing on the map… however it wasn’t at the Brickyard, it was a little closer to home.
WORDS & IMAGES: Mark Walker
Rewinding to 1992, Nigel Mansell had finally claimed the F1 crown, shaking off the perpetual bridesmaid tag that had followed him since his second placings in 1986, ’87 and ’91.
Nigel and the ’92 Williams smoked ‘em. Five straight victories to start the season, with four more to follow saw the Brit score nearly double the points of second place in the standings, his teammate Riccardo Patrese.
However, the prospect of teaming with Alain Prost for the ’93 season didn’t sit well with Mansell (following their time together at Ferrari), and following an F1-grade case of politics, the champ was off to find something new.
Enter the Newman-Hass Indycar outfit, who needed to replace the McLaren F1 bound Michael Andretti. The rest they say, is history…
The Call Up
Mum picked up myself and some other kids to transport us to the nearby Friday afternoon school cricket fixture.
“Guess what? You’re going to the Australian FAI IndyCar Grand Prix on the weekend!” She said, or something similar, I wasn’t taking notes at the time.
Wowee! Best of all, we had premium seats, which were at the back of the grandstand at the first beachside chicane.
1993 was the last year that particular structure was utilised, largely because everyone crashed into it, which sprayed the high-flying spectators with the dank sludge knocked loose from inside the tyre barriers.
From 1994 onwards, the area was converted into a grass run off area, vastly improving the safety of the circuit.
Following two previous attempts at running the event, it was still very much finding its feet. The losses taken on board by the Queensland Government could be written off against the exposure provided in the USA by a sporting series on the rise.
The spark that connected the local audience was Mansell. While names like Andretti, Unser, Rahal and Fittipaldi were big in hardcore racing circles, they didn’t resonate with casual local fans.
Another factor that struggled to draw an audience was the support card. With CAMS refusing to have anything to do with the event, the governing body went so far as to warn bans against rebels who raced at the initial running. It was left to be another job for Bob… Jane.
The local NASCAR and AUSCAR set were joined on the track by categories such as the Thundersports, as well as a celebrity race. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Group A touring cars made their debut in the concrete canyon.
In those days, the event was contested in March, opening the Indycar season. After the F1 circus moved to open its season at Melbourne in 1996, there was a need to ease calendar congestion at the start of the year. With October providing more favourable weather, as well as a quieter time for local accommodation houses, the race date moved from 1998 onwards.
The crowd was huge, and the interest in the event unparalleled. It was reported at the time that there were 800 accredited media in attendance. Global eyeballs were fixed on the GC.
The interest in the event was justified when Mansell parked his Cosworth-powered Lola on the pole position, but he was comprehensively blown away off the start by the Penske pair of Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracey, as well as Robby Gordon.
Rolling starts at that stage were not his forte.
Indycar was cool then, but it wasn’t at its peak. There were haves, have nots, and got nothings. Mansell’s pole time was a full 10 seconds quicker than Marco Greco’s effort as tail-end Charlie.
An incredible thing to watch during the race was the Indycar safety team in action, push starting stalled cars, all only under the cover of local yellow flags. Frightening.
As the race wore on, Mansell grafted his way back to the lead with forceful racing, a touch of strategy and fortunate officiating. Penalised with a stop-go for overtaking under a local yellow, the team were bizarrely able to carry out a full pit stop when the car came into the lane. Penalty served, on your way sir!
With the crowd in a frenzy, Mansell crossed the finishing line first, and subsequently ran out of fuel at the first chicane on the cool down lap.
In typical Mansell fashion, the exhausted driver limped from his parked car to the safety truck. I’ll never forget him hanging out the window ecstatically waving to the crowd as he was transported back around to the podium.
That was me, and a generation of locals, now sold on Indycar racing.
The 1993 Season
From Surfers, the Indycar circuit moved on to Phoenix, however, Mansell was never to make the start. A heavy crash earlier in the weekend KO’ed the champ, and he was out.
A couple of races later, Mansell went oh so close to claiming the Indy 500, but a botched late race restart saw eventual winner Fittipaldi and Indy legend Arie Luyendyk blast past, relegating the rookie of the year to third.
Mansell’s sole road or street course win in Indycar would prove to be at the Gold Coast. Oval track wins at Milwaukee, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth saw Mansell claim the title.
Red Five became Red One for the 1994, and with another pole at the season opener in Surfers, things were looking good again for Mansell.
The event however descended into farce, with wet weather causing havoc, leading to the race requiring three full attempts at a race start, and subsequently running long into the evening.
A pair of spins for Mansell relegated him a lap behind eventual race winner, the returning Michael Andretti. Driving for Chip Ganassi, it was a debut win for the new Reynard chassis, despite Andretti’s best efforts to grind it into the scenery.
As the race continued into the setting sun, we made our way towards the exit for a speedy getaway post chequered flag. In those days, the now-eight lane road back to Brisbane was at points still only two lanes wide.
We watched at close quarters the cars at the corner leading onto the back straight, in the dark with brakes and exhausts glowing.
While many of the American sawed at the steering wheel, taking multiple stabs to get their cars around the turn, Mansell was silky smooth.
One flick on the steering wheel. That quality left an indelible mark on this young punter.