Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Did Andretti Draw Caution Long Before Bowyer?

Rick Mears (3) and Michael Andretti (10) in '91
It was the 1991 Indianapolis 500, one of the better races of the era, before the IRL/CART civil war ripped open-wheel racing apart.

Michael Andretti had led more than half the race, setting a furious pace that left him alone on the lead lap with Rick Mears.  A caution with less than 20 laps remaining allowed Andretti to pit for fuel and he lined up for the restart behind Mears, who had been saving fuel and didn't pit.  In a dramatic move that had 250,000 fans on their feet, Andretti went around Mears on the outside going into turn one.  But Mears returned the favor on the next lap and started to slowly pull away.  After dominating the race, Andretti seemed destined for another heartbreaking finish.

That’s when it happened.  Some fans and several reporters swear they heard Mario Andretti, Michael’s father and Newman/Haas Racing teammate, ask several times on his radio, “Does Michael need a yellow?  I can create one.”  Mario was running in the top five at the time, but several laps behind the leaders.

More than 20 years ago, fans were able to listen to crew/driver radio conversations, but the technology was crude and there was not the widespread use of scanners by fans and media that you see at the track today.  When NASCAR says it doesn’t have the capability to track all team conversations today, think what it must have been like in 1991.  There is no tape recording of the conversation. 

But it didn’t take a tape to set the conspiracy theorists off when Mario rolled to a stop at the entrance to pit road, bringing out a yellow flag with 10 laps left.  First the tow rope came loose.  Then Mario’s car wouldn’t move, forcing race officials to tell him to take his foot off the brake.  Michael needed a one or two lap finish, the conspiracy went, Mears was too strong over several laps.

Michael was able to close up on Mears for the restart.  But when the green flew with six laps remaining, Mears pulled away again for his record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory.

Afterwards Mario was adamant in his denials that he purposely drew a caution flag to help his son.

“All I did was warn Michael,” the elder Andretti said.  “I didn’t do anything that was in my control.  All I did was warn the team it was going to happen.

“Here’s exactly what happened.  I blew the engine just coming out of turn one.  When that happens, of course, you knock it out of gear.  On the backstretch, I wanted to double check whether it was the engine because there was no smoke, so I picked another gear and I saw it was the engine.  So that slowed me down quite a bit.

“When I’m between three and four, coasting, I called the team and said, ‘Warn Michael, whether he needs it or not, I’m going to be creating a yellow because I can’t make the pit.’

“So Michael knew I was coasting and it looked like I was going to be at the choke spot at the pit.  I wasn’t going to create a bottleneck in the pit, in case somebody had to come in fast, so that’s where I stopped.”

Andretti said those listening on scanners, “can make up anything they want, but that’s what I said.”

USAC, the race’s sanctioning body at the time, said it had not heard any of Andretti’s radio traffic and with no tape, would take no action.

Mears, always a class act, shrugged off the incident.

“I’ve never been against yellows,” he said.  “I always figure if you’re in first place, your car should be strong enough to hold it.”
With no wronged party, no tape recording and the fact it involved Mario Andretti, one of the most beloved drivers in auto racing, the controversy faded away.
Clint Bowyer won't be as fortunate.

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