For two days and half an hour, the U.S. Grand Prix at the Meadowlands was what it was supposed to be: a continuation of the Indy rivalry between Broadway Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti, a name that needs no handle. But then they started getting carried away, and things—such as their $250,000 race cars—started getting messed up. Meanwhile, Al Unser Jr., otherwise known as "Little Al," was following the driving instructions given to him by his crew chief, Dennis Swan: "Stand on it till it quits." He did, and it didn't, and he crossed the finish line a winner, some 36 seconds ahead of two-time former world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
The 1.7-mile Meadowlands course is laid out in parking lots and on access roads of the sports complex located just west of Secaucus, N.J., and its design is the best of the country's street circuits. It's enormously demanding but rhythmic because each turn leads into the next, leaving no time for a driver to rest either body or brain. "Secaucus stripe" is what they call the black tire marks left on the continuous concrete wall after a car has kissed it, or on a car after a wall has clobbered it.
Passing is difficult, so grid positions were critical—and hence qualifying had an undeniably urgent quality. It was an Andretti/Sullivan dogfight during two days of it. At last year's inaugural Meadowlands race these two former Formula One drivers finished one-two, Andretti-Sullivan. But since his loop to victory over Andretti in this year's Indy 500, Sullivan has become a media darling. The huge Meadowlands marquee fronting Route 3, a major commuter artery, confirmed it: DANNY SULLIVAN WILL BE HERE!!! THIS FRI, SAT., SUN. it exclaimed, right up there next to similar shouts for Tina Turner. And Andretti, the Indy Car point champion last year, came to town having won three of the first four CART races this season and having led 402 out of 594 possible laps.
When the qualifying hype and smoke had cleared, Andretti was on the pole at 98.452 mph, breaking his own record and edging Sullivan by .911. That tied Andretti with A.J. Foyt at 53 lifetime pole-winning performances, a record that meant a lot to him, considering the other legend he shares it with.
At the drivers' meeting in the bowels of the Brendan Byrne Arena, the legends, Mario and A.J., sat unapproached in the front row; Sullivan sat on a couch in the rear of the room, casually sockless, decked in dirty white fringed moccasins. Chief steward Wally Dallenbach's parting words were, "It's gonna be hot as hell out there—two hours of chopping wood. So remember, the man who's gonna win is the man who's gonna pace himself."
Some people might have paid closer attention. After a first lap run under caution because the field was too ragged to start under the green, Andretti won a drag race into the first turn, pursued by Sullivan as if glued to the gearbox of Mario's Lola. Unser, who had started sixth, would say, "All I saw was Mario and Danny disappear."
The duo in red ran off from the field, and the next time around Sullivan made a move on Andretti in the righthand first turn. It was "a silly thing" to do, Sullivan admitted later; he tapped the Lola and pushed his own March's left front wing down as if it had been lightly trod on by someone such as, well, Christie Brinkley, who was on hand to wish Sullivan good luck.
Still a mere bent wing didn't slow Sullivan down. He hounded Andretti for seven more laps and then passed the Lola by outbraking it into a turn. Driving aggressively in traffic, Sullivan started pulling away: he had a 10-second margin by Lap 25, when he pitted for fuel and tires. Andretti got the lead back, with Bobby Rahal on his tail and Little Al on Rahal's. "Mario just seemed to back up to me and Rahal," said Unser. They were a bright red trio now, and their racing was good stuff.
Sullivan came out of the pits in sixth position, charging. He charged right into a spin. "Somebody shut the door," he explained, meaning a slower driver had cut him off. His car stalled, and he thumped the steering wheel in frustration waiting for the tow truck to arrive. He was out of contention and would later be out of the race altogether with debris in his turbocharger. But he had been there!!! And they all knew it.
Things started getting hot then. Unser had pitted, and Rahal assumed the task of harassing Andretti. Rahal has been the only driver besides Sullivan to run with Andretti this season, and three weeks earlier at an International Race of Champions event in identically prepared Camaros, he had bumped Mario out of the lead and into a spin with only two laps to go to win the race. It was an excellent and daring move, but Andretti hadn't thought much of it. "We have a score to settle," he announced.
On Lap 35 of 100, as they accelerated up a short straight toward the tight Turn 5, Rahal thought he saw a puff of smoke come from Andretti's tailpipes. He suspected Andretti had missed a shift, which would give him the momentum for a pass. "I wasn't going to press the pass since there was a lot of race left to run, but I had a run on him," said Rahal. "He knew I was coming, and he looked in his mirror and pulled right over and stood on the brakes. He just flat chopped me. God, I had nowhere to go!"
Walking back to his pit, Andretti shook his head in disgust. "How could he say I missed a shift?" Andretti demanded. "We were braking when it happened. I was going down the inside toward the turn, and he just came down and clipped me in the rear end. Rahal needs to get his depth perception checked."
Andretti's car was knocked into one driven by an innocent and surprised Geoff Brabham, who then nudged the wall. Mario was out with a broken front suspension. Rahal continued back to the pits, but eventually retired with a broken brake line. Presumably the score Andretti now has to settle is 2-0.
The lead was inherited by Emerson Fittipaldi, the 38-year-old Brazilian whose mother's favorite poet was Ralph Waldo. He was driving with a loose steering wheel. "Very tough to drive the car like that. Very tiring. For my age is very difficult," he said. When he pitted—his crew's suggestion was not to worry about the wheel—Little Al took over. "From there on, I didn't really see anybody to race with," said Unser, and easily maintained his lead over Fittipaldi. Al Unser Sr. made a strong run to third, over another son—Michael Andretti.
Little Al has been racing since he was nine years old, which gives him 14 years' experience. The kid has flat got it. He was nurtured by the most famous family in Indy Car racing—Al Sr. has won the Indy 500 three times and Uncle Bobby has a like number of wins—and if you think he looks like a kid now, you should have seen him when he was 16, handling brutish sprint cars on dirt tracks when he competed on the "World of Outlaws" circuit.
Said Little Al, who won $88,694, "Our objective for this race was to run as fast as the car would go—and not make any mistakes. You just can't make any here or you're into the concrete. That's the big thing: Stay off the walls.
"To get out here and race with these guys—Emerson and Dad and Mario, all of 'em—I can't put into words what it means to outrun 'em."
Said Fittipaldi, "I think for sure he's going to be a superstar, for sure."
Al Sr. looked on proudly, until it was his turn to be interviewed. How did he feel about being out there with his son? "A heckuva deal," he said. And what would happen if one day it should be the two of them racing down to the checkered flag?
"It would be interesting, wouldn't it?" replied Senior. "I know one thing: He's not gonna back off."