If you ever want to introduce motorsports to a person not interested in high-octane entertainment, the 1994 Indianapolis 500 is the race to do it. Conquest, tears, divorce, fuel. All in one package.
The Indianapolis 500 is an all-American institution much like Major League Baseball. In some ways it’s rooted in a European tradition, but it encapsulated most of the American spirit and psyche as no other national event. Sure, in 2015, things look much different - the former Great American Race seems like a mere shadow of its former self, but until recent years it captured the imagination of racing drivers all around the globe. One of the few, most prestigious races one could win in a lifetime achievement effort. In 1994, though, the Indy 500 looked like as if it existed in a galaxy far, far away - not much before it all came crashing down as if stars collided and were ripped apart in one megalomaniac storm of all particles. Here is what happened in that very spirited moment of motor racing history.
The weeks leading up to Memorial Day of 1994 on the motorsports side was loud of three things.
The month of May kicked off with the demise of an all-time racing legend, the three-time Brazilian world champion, Ayrton Senna in Imola, at the San Marino Grand Prix. The tragedy quickly turned eyes onto one of Williams F1 team’s former refugee, reigning PPG IndyCar champion, Nigel Mansell, whom the tragically fallen hero was only separated by two seasons at the same team. Nigel famously left Williams at the end of the 1992 season as a champion, only to run into the arms of Paul Newman and Carl Haas in America to give a try to open-wheel racing on the other side of the Atlantic. The experiment was so successful that the Brit won the series on first try - not without controversy, though - and barely missed out on winning the 1993 Indianapolis 500. He was now standing by the entrance of the garage, pondering heavy-heartedly about the future as Williams was bombarding him with offers, and upon a jouranalist’s inquiry whether he would return to Formula One, he only answered with a slightly ambiguous “I beg your pardon?”.
The second reason the speedway alley was loud - leading up to the events of the 500-mile race - was Team Penske’s adverse announcement of a Mercedes-Benz-branded engine for the American classic. The engine was legal, although it used a clever interpretation of the rules, leaving barely anybody without a doubt that they would be winning the race. Penske has been one of the most successful teams in Speedway, Indiana, therefore their ambition to win was not without precedent. Their partnership with Mercedes-Benz blew the competition out of the water in advance.
Mercedes-Benz quit the World Sportscar Championship - branded with a different name at the time - at the end of the 1991 season. Their partnership with the Sauber team spawned some of the most legendary Group C prototypes ever, and by the time it came to F1-spec engines at Le Mans and spiraling costs, they called it a day and looked for something more lucrative for the money. In 1993 they partnered with British Ilmor to create racing engines, which ultimately lead to the Sauber-Mercedes team in 1994 and the McLaren-Mercedes partnership in 1995 for twenty seasons to come, resulting in their world-beating factory program in the World Championship. Their other program was featured across the Atlantic, a secret cooperation with Team Penske. A one-off engine to end all debates, the Mercedes-Benz-branded Ilmor engine was something to behold and was left in the shadows up until the month of May. The PPG IndyCar World Series at the time was sanctioned by CART at the time - most of the time - except the famous Indianapolis 500, which had been sanctioning the race since 1956, but the race still counted toward the CART championship. Most teams couldn’t care less, and they run the cars they were featuring at all the other races as well, but Penske, Mercedes-Benz and Ilmor had a better look at the rulebook by USAC and created an engine along the lines that was invented for lower-cost efforts. The tall, pushrod-operated 500i engine was kept under maximum security, being developer at a small, dark garage away from the Penske headquarters. The regulations that were invented to permit the use of stock blocks now spawned a purpose-built beast that would surely beat anybody on the torque side, while producing a reported 1000 horsepowers.
The third reason the 500-mile race would be so memorable, because it would be the last attempt of the embodiment of the American dream to win the legendary race. Mario Andretti, naturalized citizen of the US decades ago is an all-time legend of American open-wheel racing and the 1994 Indy event would be his last one as a driver to win the Great American Race for a second time since the late 60s. His son, Michael - a fresh F1 escapee - and his nephew, John, the stock car driver would be on the grid as well, who - for the first time in history - would attempt the ‘Double Duty’, i.e. running the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Charlotte 600 race on the same day.
The Penske team hired two-time World champion Emerson Fittipaldi and another IndyCar legend Al Unser, Jr. from the dynasty that was responsible for so many victories at the Brickyard in the past decades, fitted with the relatively fresh-to-the-sport Canadian, Paul Tracy.
There were two “rookies” in the field in the scope of scrutineering. One was Dennis Vitolo, a businessman on his own right, who gained much attention after gambling with all the family’s fortune and estate to be in the race. The other was a true first-timer to the series, Jacques Villeneuve, son of the tragically passing Gilles Villeneuve of Formula 1 fame in the early 80s.
Two-third of the front row was occupied by the two, senior Penske drivers who quickly leapt from the rest of the field with a low-tone, torquey grunt, and it was apparent right at the very first lap, that either a mechanical failure or a driver error could stop these Marlboro-liveried cars from winning the race.
One of the very first victims of the race was Mario Andretti, who - suffering from a mechanical failure - could not leave the pits after the first stop, ending a spectacular American fashion on a down note. The Italian-American thanked all his his fans his life-long support, fighting tears.
Paul Tracy followed up soon after with an engine failure, which was not a good sign for Penske.
About halfway through the race, a multiple car accident brought out the yellow flag and the pace car,slowing down the field. Dennis Vitolo, misjudging his speed, collided with a car under yellow, throwing his vehicle on the very top of Nigel Mansell’s racing machine on the warm-up lane. What was initially thought to be methanol-fire, it turned out to be coolant, but the Brit was nevertheless shoved onto the grass by fire marshals. Mansell later dismissed all medical attention and failed to comment on the situation to the media in any digestible form, pushing cameras away from his face. Vitolo admitted to his mistake, but the two never discussed the situation in person - let alone the Brit’s black flag for an earlier incident in the pits.
Villeneuve - in a skirmish of pit stops - found himself leading the race for a few laps, becoming the best-placed rookie in the race throughout, becoming the only threat to the Penske team.
A few laps before the end of the race, Fittipaldi hit the wall in a fight with his team-mate, rendering him scoring a DNF. For the final few laps, radio communication with the pits and Al Unser, Jr. failed, that threw Unser’s race in the stone age with Roger Penske writing simple orders and information on a blackboard with a chalk to be communicated to the driver through the pitwall.
A late-race crash meant the race would finish under yellow, keeping Unser in first place, Villeneuve in second, while Michael Andretti was declared 6th from 3rd place for a last-minute, ambiguous black-flag situation.
Ultimately, the winner became the one most people predicted, leaving not too many surprises to the Winners’ Circle.
It would be the last time Emerson Fittipaldi would race at Indianapolis, and left open-wheel racing at the end of the following year due to an accident. Al Unser, Jr.’s win would be the last one - as of 2015 - that an Unser won the Indy 500.
Jacques Villenevue would be the Rookie of the Year and would go on the following year’s Indy and the championship, before being drafted by Williams F1 in 1996 and becoming a World Champion in 1997.
The engine rules would be changed for the following year, that resulted in both Penske drivers, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi being bumped from the race.
Mansell would go on and drive for Williams at the French Grand Prix in late June and the rest of the F1 season after IndyCar wrapped for the year, relieving David Coulthard from his duties substituting the late Ayrton Senna. He would also race in the following season with McLaren, but he quit after a few attempts and left open-wheel racing for ten years.
Michael Andretti would stay with CART, but he would never win an Indy 500.
John Andretti would make a tradition of running the two races on the same day, but he never raced in Indianapolis in CART again.
With the engine controversy being a factor, IndyCar would split to the Indy Racing League and the CART championship in 1996, hurting both series in the long run.
NASCAR would arrive in Indianapolis later in 1994, the first race to be held outside of the 500-mile race at the track since 1916 and would also welcome Formula One in 2000.
Today, the Daytona 500 stock car race is referred to as the “Great American Race”.