There was a time not long ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the only foreign language spoken in Gasoline Alley came from the mouth of a Texan named Foyt. But after last Saturday, the first day of qualifying for next week's Indianapolis 500, nine of the first 10 spots on the starting grid were occupied by foreign-born drivers. Arie Luyendyk of the Netherlands took the pole position with a four-lap average speed of 223.967 mph—nearly 10 mph slower than that of last year's pole sitter, Roberto Guerrero of Colombia—on the oval shrine that has been slightly reconfigured this year for added safety. The parade of outlanders arrayed behind Luyendyk seems more like the list of sponsors of a United Nations resolution than the field for an event so quintessentially American that it is run on the day the nation honors its heroes fallen in battle.
Filling out the front row for the 500 will be Mario Andretti, who left Italy for the U.S. at 15, and Raul Boesel of Brazil, who speaks four languages fluently. Behind them will be Scott Goodyear of Canada, Al Unser Jr. of Albuquerque, Stefan Johansson of Sweden, Paul Tracy of Canada, Nigel Mansell of Great Britain, Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil and Guerrero.
By far the most impressive of the international set is Mansell, the reigning Formula One champion, who has never run a race on an oval track, who had never seen the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before he flew over it on his way into Indy for qualifying, and who is still recovering from a two-hour-long operation he underwent only 14 days before his first practice session, on May 12.
To call Mansell a pain in the rear—as do some who know him best—is no longer merely a way of describing the most daring race car driver in the world. It is also a medical fact. On April 3, Mansell drove his car backward at 180 mph into a concrete wall in Phoenix while qualifying for what would have been his first race on an oval. Since then the lowest part of his back has been excavated, first by large hypodermic needles to clean out the area, then by a pair of 12-inch vacuum tubes that looked like dual exhaust pipes, and finally by surgeons trying to repair damage done to muscle. When the 500 begins on Memorial Day, the most sensitive instrument in Mansell's car will be stitched up like a cheap suit. To reduce swelling, surgeons left nearly 100 sutures deep inside his lower back. "We can make the car so it doesn't hurt him, but he wouldn't be able to feel the road," says Terry Trammell, the orthopedist who assisted during the operation al Indianapolis's Morton Plant Hospital on April 28. "If you drive by the scat of your pants, you've got to be able to feel the car. And he does."
When Mansell is on a racetrack, his brains are almost entirely in the back of his lap. In winning the world driving championship last year in a car owned by Frank Williams, Mansell dominated the F/1 series with an unprecedented five wins in a row at the start of the season. He then became the first reigning champion to switch to Indy Cars when he signed a $5 million contract to drive a Lola/Ford Cosworth for Paul Newman and Carl Haas.
Mansell has been at or near the top of his sport for almost a decade. During a two-year period beginning in 1985, he won 13 races, and in '86 he was within 44 miles of the world championship when he blew a tire at the Australian Grand Prix, the final race of the Formula One season. He lost the title to Alain Prost by two points. Mansell won eight poles and six races in '87 and broke a 34-year-old record by qualifying on the front row of the grid for 15 consecutive races. But he crashed during practice in Japan that year and suffered two compressed vertebrae. He finished second in the standings again.
In the 500, Mansell faces a new challenge made more daunting by his medical condition. Indy Cars are set up differently for ovals than for the road courses, on which Mansell has already finished first (on March 21 at Surfers' Paradise, Australia) and third (at Long Beach on April 18) to lead in the Indy Car point standings. Indy Cars also weigh 500 pounds more than F/1 machines, which makes watching Mansell navigate the corners of an oval track like the ones in Indianapolis and Phoenix akin to waiting to see where a cruise missile is going to land.
Mansell calls cornering at Indianapolis "hold-your-breath time" and said that he was "terrified" by his own corner braking at Long Beach. Unser, who tangled with Mansell in a turn at Long Beach, offered a more negative assessment of Mansell's driving there. "I've never seen anybody block me as bad as Nigel blocked me," Unser said. "He knew exactly where I was when I was behind him, and then as soon as I got beside him, he had no idea where I was. He parked me against the wall. But what goes around comes around."
What goes around for Mansell does seem to keep coming around, usually flattening him each time it passes. He was born in 1953 over a tearoom in the village of Upton-on-Severn, 90 miles northwest of London, and was steeped in kart racing by his father, Eric, an engineer with some small-time racing experience. At 13, Nigel sailed through a fence at a track in Morecambe while going 100 mph in a go-kart, and when he arrived at the hospital, he looked so awful that a priest administered last rites. Mansell regained consciousness during this solemn moment long enough to tell the priest to sod off.
Race driving amounts to a constant quest for traction, and when Mansell didn't find it on the circuits, he frequently located it in the hospitals where he was pieced back together. He broke his neck in two places when he left the Brands Hatch circuit backward while going 120 mph in a 1977 Formula Ford race. He had just resigned from an engineering job at an aerospace company to pursue racing full-time. "I had no job and no money," he recalls, "and for a period of time I couldn't move my arms and legs."