Indycar Notes- Is Mario Out of a Ride? Honda Ends Fastest Seat in Sports Commitment

Photo: Mario Andretti drives the two seater before the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Indycar photo, Chris Jones

A story that got curiouser and curiouser finally reached its conclusion this morning.

An article in The Drive by Steve Cole Smith on October 31 indicated that !969 Indianapolis 500 winner and World Champion Mario Andretti will not return to drive Honda’s Fastest Seat in Sports, the 2 seater that leads the grid before the start of races. Smith said he learned at St. Pete that Honda is removing Andretti from the ride.

Andretti later responded with a Tweet saying this was “Fake news.”

Robin Miller of Racer magazine in a story yesterday (November 1) says that Honda has denied firing Mario. Mario also stated his desire to continue with the program, which began in 2005.

Just a couple of hours ago, Marshall Pruett of Racer reports that Honda is ending its sponsorship of the Fastest Seat in Sports. Indycar is seeking a new sponsor for the program. The question left is, will Mario Andretti still be driving?

Testing at Barber Today

21 cars will participate in the first official day of offseason testing for the NTT Indycar Series today. First time drivers taking part are three time Australian Supercars Champion Scott McLaughlin for Team Penske, seven time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson for Chip Ganassi racing, and Formula E champion Antonio Felix da Costa for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The da Costa test is a courtesy test and not expected to lead to an Indycar ride.

The testing list, from Nathan Brown’s Twitter feed:

St. Pete Tears Down Track

My Eyes in Florida tells me that the St. Pete track is being torn down, to be rebuilt late February next year. the podiums for the race winner and championship celebrations are still up as of this morning. I would think they would leave the grandstands up as they did all summer. There is actually less time between the March 2021 race and the race two weekends ago than there was between the original date for this year and when the race was held.

The Last 50 Race Winner?

Photo: Scott Dixon after winning his 50th career race at World Wide Technology Raceway on Saturday. Chris Owens, Indycar

On Saturday Scott Dixon became just the third driver in Indycar history to win 50 races. The two in front of him, A. J. Foyt with 67 wins, and Mario Andretti with 52, have stood as the only to achieve the 50 race race mark since 1988, when Andretti won his 50th race at Phoenix. Foyt’s 50th came in 1975 at Trenton.

A. J. Foyt

There are similarities between the three drivers. Foyt and Dixon both hit the win mark at age 40. Andretti was 44, but spent 1975-1981 full time in Formula 1, although he still drove in the Indianapolis 500. An argument could be made that had Andretti drove Indycar full time during those years, he would have won 50 races much earlier. Could he have have surpassed Foyt for first place all time? That’s a great topic for bench racing.

Mario Andretti

I’m not sure how to decide which of the three drivers’ feat is the most remarkable. Foyt raced in an era where careers were usually shortened by injuries or death. Andretti also raced during the same era as Foyt. Dixon has raced most of his career in spec cars where the equipment is essentially equal in theory.

Will we see another driver win as many as 50 races? Only one other driver, Michael Andretti has won more than 40 times. I think the odds are quite long. The next active driver on the win list is Will Power with 37 wins, tied for sixth on the career list with Sebastien Bourdais. Power has a chance to reach the 40 win mark, but his remaining  time in Indycar looks limited.  Ryan Hunter-Reay has 18 wins, 26th all time.  Simon Pagenaud now has won 15 times, which ties him for 31st with Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. Only 45 drivers since 1909 have won 10 or more times.

If another driver ends up with 50 or more career win, he would be one of the newer drivers in the series. Any driver with potential has a lot to battle in his quest for the magic number. He needs to be on a top team for many years, like Dixon has been. There are  concerns of sponsors, injuries, mechanical failures, and accidents.

An Indycar career can last a long time. The aeroscreen may have added some years to a driver’s time on the track. The competitiveness of the series makes it more difficult to win a race. While this year may be a bit of an aberration, we have had there have been five different winners in nine races. Indycar has been averaging about seven different winners a season the past few years.

If I had to guess which drivers  may someday reach 50 victories, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward would be the first two which come to mind. Herta won twice last year. O’Ward has yet to win a race, but I have a feeling that once he gets his first checkered flag, he will begin winning with regularity.

I have been fortunate to see each of the three 50 race winners drive and win races. Today’s fans need to appreciate Scott Dixon as he competes in his last few years  in Indycar. I admired the skills of Foyt and Andretti when they raced. Seeing them has helped me understand that Dixon is their equal.

ICON : Mario at the IMS Museum

The photos of a very young Mario Andretti like the one above jolted me back to 1965 when this rookie showed up for the Indianapolis 500. He was fast and became an instant fan favorite. Andretti earned Rookie of the Year honors and won his first Indycar race later that summer.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of his 1969 Indianapolis 500 win, the Mario Andretti ICON exhibit now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway takes visitors on a tour of Mario’s racing career from sprint cars to his final race. His many stops include Formula 1 and the 1978 World Championship and a victory in the Daytona 500 in 1967.

I really like the special exhibits the IMS Museum has done- A. J. Foyt, the Unsers, and now Mario. One thing that does disturb is how many of the cars on display I saw race.  You’d think I was old or something.

The car that fascinated me the most was the Ted Horn Offenhauser sprint car which Andretti drove in four United Racing Club events in 1961. These races were the beginning of his sprint career. The car’s new owner put a Cadillac engine in it. Andretti had three top 10s in the four races in this car.  The car as seen in the museum is as it was when Horn drove it in the post war forties.

The exhibit recalls what to many was the Golden Age of Racing. Drivers drove any type of car any time. It goes beyond the cold statistics of Andretti’s career and presents us a versatile driver who could win no matter what series he drove in.  I think that is something sorely lacking today.

The room where other exhibits had memorabilia displayed was closed for a private event. I hope there are more items than the dozen or so displayed in the north hall.  Below are a few photos.  This is a must see exhibit which I’m not sure my descriptions have done justice.

Update

I just received this message from the IMS Museum:

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1965 Indianapolis 500 Rookie car

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1964- First Indycar ride

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1970- Dirt car. This was the last season Indycar raced on 1 mile dirt tracks

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1978- Formula 1 World Champion

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1984- Winner of the 500 mile race at Michigan international Speedway

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1994- Andretti’s car in his final Indycar season

Cheating, Lineup Shuffles, Controversial Finish, Who Won? The 1981 Indianapolis 500

Rain, controversy, and an arrest highlighted the crazy month of May 1981. The starting lineup wasn’t finalized until the Thursday before the race. The winner of the race was in doubt for several months. The last row of the lineup in the program was not the last row that lined up on Race Day. Oh- and it rained a lot too.

The 1981 program for the 65th Running had an unusual cover with a black back ground featuring the Borg -Warner Trophy and some strategically placed lettering. The center of the program has a foldout photo of the trophy with some facts about the piece. This was before the base was added. The most interesting bit was that the trophy was stolen from a hotel room in 1938 then returned to the same room two days later.

The Race Day schedule has the opening ceremonies beginning at 10:00, with the National Anthem at 10:44 and the race starting at 11:00. A nice, compact hour with no interruptions. Great idea, NBC?

The program lists 109 entries, 10 without assigned numbers. 90 cars made qualification attempts and 12 were bumped. The first weekend was a virtual washout, which made the last two days rather hectic. The delay in qualifying may have contributed to the chaos.

Seven feature stories include one on the last living participant of the 1911 race. Colonel Ed Towers was a riding mechanic for the Amplex car which finished eighth in the first 500. Towers was 93 years old at the time the article appears in May 1981. Bill Turner drove the car.

The Crazy Month of May

The key word for 1981 was rain. practices got washed out and the forecast for Pole weekend was not promising. Only nine drivers qualified the first Saturday, and not everyone who drew for a qualifying spot had a chance. Pole Day was rescheduled for the next day. Only those who had drawn numbers would be eligible to make a pole run. A. J. Foyt was the fastest of the nine, but would have to wait a week to find out if he would be on the pole again. Rain washed out all track action Sunday.

The rainout created a problem for Mario Andretti, who was committed to race in the Belgian Grand Prix the next weekend. Wally Dallenbach agreed to qualify the car for Andretti, who would start last in the race.

With so many cars and only two days to make the race, tension was high. The following Saturday saw a record 53 qualifying attempts. Bobby Unser won the pole and Mike Mosley also bettered Foyt’s time for the middle of the front row. Tom Sneva had a speed quicker than Unser, but he was not in the original line and was not able to run for the pole. Dallenbach qualified Andretti’s car in 8th place. The field had 33 qualifiers at the end of the day with one full day left for bumping.

Bump Day again featured lots of drama. 37 drivers took the green and 9 were bumped. Jerry Sneva got in the race with about 30 minutes to spare, knocking Jerry Karl out of the field. A protest was lodged against Sneva that a bolt had kept the pop-off valve from opening allowing his car to gain speed. The stewards disqualified Sneva the next day, and Karl was back in the race. Karl’s difficult week was just beginning. He was arrested the following Thursday on contempt of court charges from a case the previous year.

The starting lineup insert in the program was printed very soon after the last day of qualifying. A note on the bottom of the score card portion reads, “At press time USAC advised that a protest involving the starting eligibility of Car No. 17 (J. Sneva) was not resolved, and that an announced driver change and subsequent starting position for Car No. 40 (Dallenbach/Andretti) was unofficial.”

The last row lineup looks this way in the insert:

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On Race Day the last row was:

Jerry Karl, Mario Andretti, and Tim Richmond

Brayton and Klausler moved to row 10, and Sneva was not in the field. Richmond had been bumped, but his team rented A. J. Foyt’s number 84 that George Snider had qualified and Richmond took the seat. Race Day would seem relaxing after all the craziness surrounding setting the grid.

Like many days that May, Race Day held a chance of rain. Fortunately it held off until well after the race ended. There was confusion at the start as starter Duane Sweeney misunderstood a signal from a steward and reached for the yellow flag as the field approached for the start. He quickly switched to the green flag as the first two rows passed. The race became a typical 500 of the time with yellows and lead changes on pit stops. The caution flag waved 11 times for 69 laps. The worst accident happened on lap 64 when Danny Ongais slammed the wall in turn 3. The car caught fire. I remember seeing the plume of black smoke from my spot on the front stretch.

During a yellow flag period on 149 leader Bobby Unser and second place Mario Andretti were leaving the pits. The rule is you blend into traffic wherever you return to the track. Unser passed several cars as he reentered the race. Andretti blended in and reported to his pit what he saw.

Unser won the race by 12 seconds, becoming the sixth three time winner. At that time the official results weren’t posted until 8 am the next morning. The posted finish showed Andretti as the winner and Unser second. He received a one lap penalty for passing cars under yellow. Mario was honored at the Victory Banquet that night.

Roger Penske, Unser’s team owner, appealed the decision. Prize money for Unser and Andretti was held until a hearing took place later in the summer. Unser was reinstated as the winner, but received a five figure fine for his actions..

As for the last row starters, they did quite well. In addition to Andretti , Richmond finished 14th and Karl 15th. It was the last 500 for both Karl and Richmond.

It was the first time in 500 history that two drivers became three time winners consecutive races. Johnny Rutherford won his third in 1980.