Great Stories of the 80s and 90s

A lot has happened in open-wheel racing these past few weeks. Claire Williams stepped down as Deputy Team Principal of the team her father built: Williams F1. Pierre Gasly got his maiden victory in F1. Ferrari celebrated their 1000th grand prix. Jimmie Johnson announced his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing for a partial IndyCar run in the next two-seasons and Lewis Hamilton was handed a rare penalty at the Russian GP.

All of this to say…it has been a busy news period.

Today though, I’m not going to speak on any of that.

Lately, I haven’t felt motivated and I wanted to give myself the time to ask why. So, I went back to the drawing board and realized what I really want to talk about is the “good ol’ days.”

I often say that I was born in the wrong era of racing. That’s not to say that the current isn’t full of exciting competitors and unmatchable technology, but there was a level of pageantry attributed to the sport in the 80s and 90s.  

So, in an attempt to rejuvenate myself…I want to share the magic of that era.

My dad always had the best racing stories. Growing up I learned about great competitors like the determined Nigel Mansell, the calculated Alain Prost and the revered Al Unser Jr. I heard the stories of these drivers and I silently dreamed of winning my first race.

The following are some of the stories he shared with me growing up, the ones that made me love this sport.

1985 Indianapolis 500 – Danny Sullivan spins and wins

Up against some of the greatest competitors, Danny Sullivan, in his second 500 start, sat in the middle of the third row. With a new Penske deal and nice grid placement there was no reason he couldn’t win, well except for the six previous winners in the field.

With 80 laps left, Sullivan misheard his team radio and decided to get a little “racey.” He believed he had only 12 laps until the end of the race…so he attempted to pass Mario Andretti. After clearing Andretti, Sullivan quickly lost control of the car and completed a 360º spin. Somehow though…Sullivan commanded the car and continued, but he lost track placement. In one of the most incredible victories in 500 history, following a restart, with three-laps to go, Sullivan found himself leading the great Andretti and won the race by 2.477 seconds…woah.

1996 – A Villeneuve returns to Montreal

I spoke about the pageantry of the era earlier. There is no better example of this than Jacques Villeneuve at the track named after his father. My dad was at Villeneuve’s first race in Montreal. He recounts this as one of the most incredible racing experiences. In Villeneuve’s first F1 race in Canada the crowd worshiped him as a God. Everybody was in support of him, everybody was wearing his merchandise, everybody was holding their breath to see what he could do. We see how the tifosi are in Italy, imagine this x 10 in Canada. That weekend in Montreal, the rookie, Villeneuve and the Williams-Renault team dominated. Damon Hill came in first and Villeneuve second.

To the fans delight, Villeneuve had lived up to the family name and began a new chapter in the family’s history book.

1993 – Nigel Mansell at the Indianapolis 500

Already an F1 World Champion, Mansell entered the CART IndyCar series confidently.

My dad recalled how in 1993, Mansell almost won the 500 in his first attempt, coming in third and only falling short on the restarts. Following the race Mansell believed it was one of the hardest experiences of his careers.

Without an oval-track background it was surprising to teams that he found his stride so early on, but one of the greatest things to hear about was how the media and fans flocked to him. There was a level of international attention that was un-rivalled in the sport at the time. This led to recognition of the competitiveness and importance of this series in an era where they were still trying to find their footing and it proved that IndyCar was REAL racing.

Here he was, arguably one of the greatest drivers of the time and he could find success at all IndyCar and F1 tracks except one…the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Following his 1993 IndyCar efforts, Mansell said: “IndyCars are like thoroughbreds in racing. I am continually reminded that Indy cars of today are exactly like Formula One in 1985, ’86 and ’87. Then it changed. Racing became more technical, too computerized. The way I look at it, I am back racing the way I was in the ‘80s, when racing was a hell of a lot of fun.”

The story of Mansell in the 1993 Indy 500 is incredible. I can only imagine the pressure, the desire to prove that he is the best driver in the world no matter where he is, that Mansell felt. Even under pressure, he found great success in a series where the cars and tracks fought against the nature of his background. He was a true racing driver.

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