If you asked any of the 250,000 or so people who witnessed last Saturday's run for the Indianapolis 500 pole, they would probably say the day lacked suspense. If you asked Mario Andretti, who dominated the contest with his white-knuckle driving, he would say it was the most nerve-racking qualifying day in his 22 years at the Speedway. And if you asked any of the 40 other drivers who either gave it a long shot or gave it up, they surely would have called it a day with drama at every turn. On second thought, make that a week of drama.
Six days earlier, Pancho Carter had gotten Indy '87 off to something of a flying start. After spinning in Turn 3, his March-Cosworth went airborne, rolled over, sailed about 100 feet and fell back to the track. Carter found himself sliding down the track for some 600 feet on his head, with a small automobile strapped to his butt. How's that for drama? Then he bounced off a concrete wall and slid another 260 feet. Days later he was back at it, with a new car and a new helmet.
No other drivers matched Carter's aerobatics, but 12 of them challenged his wall-bashing, the most persistent being 1983 Indy winner Tom Sneva, who clouted the Turn 2 wall on Friday and repeated the act in Turn 1 on Sunday.
Thus began the era of the radial tire at the Brickyard. For more than two years Goodyear had been developing and testing radials for the high G-forces generated in Indy Car oval track racing; the theory is they will be safer than bias-ply tires because of their better resistance to punctures and wear. But the hypersensitive Indy Car chassis can't accept such a major change without radical adjustments to their suspension setups, and it was the groping for that extremely elusive "right setup" that put the cars off course. The main bugaboo was a handling condition called "under-steer" or "push"; that is, the driver turns the steering wheel, but the car doesn't react. So you skid into the outside wall—and keep skidding into it, until you get the car set up right. The sharper the team, the sooner the problem is solved.
"It's an impossible assignment," says last year's Indy 500 winner, Bobby Rahal. "You've got what seems like an infinite number of chassis setups, with all the possible combinations of wings, shocks, springs and what have you. And every time the track changes, which can be by the minute because of such commonplace events as slight fluctuations in air temperature, the balance changes. The most subtle of adjustments can make a car that's scaring the hell out of you suddenly go four miles an hour quicker and be downright easy to drive. Very few teams have a handle on it, and even the best ones sometimes have no idea why their car's handling like a piece of cake, or like rubbish."
Livening things up even more this year was a new Chevrolet engine, the first power plant designed exclusively for racing since the Ford Cosworth V-8 replaced the venerable four-cylinder Offenhauser a decade ago. It's a turbocharged 2.65-liter, twin-overhead-camshaft V-8 with 32 valves. That stuff is nice to know, but the point is that it produces 735 horsepower, about 15 more than the Cosworth.
Designed and built in England by Ilmor Engineering, whose principals are Mario Illien and Paul Morgan, the engine was field developed last year by Penske Racing, partners in the project with Ilmor and General Motors. Although it powered Rick Mears to a closed-course record of 233.934 mph at Michigan International Speedway last November, the Chevy finished only 3 of the 13 races it entered, none of them 500-milers. Penske had exclusive use of the engine in 1986, but this season three other top drivers will be powered by Chevrolet: Emerson Fittipaldi, Kevin Cogan and...Mario Andretti.
Last month at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Andretti lapped the field with the Chevy; it was the first win in 85 Indy Car races for an engine other than the Cosworth. Naturally, Mario was delighted. But that's nothing compared to his feeling about his overall prospects for this season. He believes he's in the strongest position of his 29-year career. If that's so, it's because of his own special strength: recognizing and assembling talent. As much as anything else, that's what makes Andretti the driver he is today. Indeed, probably no other driver can match his perception, organizational ability and influence.
Last year was a very poor one for Andretti, though his two wins would have been a career highlight for many Indy Car drivers. Andretti's Paul Newman-Carl Haas Team was missing three important elements: a good chassis, a good team manager and a good engineer. This year he has all three. The new, much improved Lola chassis was created in large part by designer Nigel Bennett, who has worked closely with Andretti since 1978. That was the year Andretti won the world championship driving a Formula One Lotus. The new chief mechanic is Tyler Alexander, a two-time Indy 500 winner with Johnny Rutherford (1974 and '76), who is returning to Indy Cars after two years and a stint as team manager of the Formula One McLaren team.
But Andretti and Newman-Haas's most controversial move was the hiring of a new engineer. He is Adrian Newey of England, who last year worked for Mario's son Michael. Newey is considered the main reason for Michael's success in '86, when he finished second to Rahal in the CART points championship. Mario admits it's a "delicate subject," the father gaining the coveted engineer and the son left holding the bag, but he pleads noninvolvement in the recruiting. He also will admit he doesn't like being beaten by anyone, including his son.