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."
He was told to remain flat on his back or risk permanent paralysis. So, of course, he was back racing again in less than two months. He won 32 of 42 starts and the Formula Ford driving championship that year, wearing a neck brace. "Sometimes it hurt so much I had tears in my eyes on the racetrack." Mansell says.
The tracks of his tears were in racing's competitive backwaters because Mansell did not come from a family wealthy enough to buy him a ride in the next level of competition, Formula Three. He wrote 400 letters pleading in vain for backing from potential sponsors. In desperation he and his wife, Rosanne, sold their house and many of their belongings in 1978 to raise cash for a faster Formula Three car. The money was gone after four races. "It was horrible," Mansell says. "The bottom of our world dropped out."
Mansell took a job in the dead of winter as a window washer so that he could continue racing. "There he was, a fully qualified engineer, washing windows," Rosanne says. "I couldn't buy clothes, so I started to sew them, and we forgot what it was to go out for a meal." Finally, in 1979, David Price, who ran Unipart's Formula Three team, took Mansell on as his No. 2 driver. Running with below-average equipment, Mansell won only one race that season, but he was paid a salary and received crucial exposure.
Until Mansell was 21, his parents had always traveled with him to kart races, but in 1975, when he was ready to move into faster cars and asked his father for backing, he was sharply rebuffed. Years later Eric would try to take some credit for Nigel's success, telling his famous son that he had inherited his father's bravery. Nigel dismissed the notion publicly, writing in Driven to Win, his '88 autobiography, "My feeling is that courage comes from within oneself." He added, "I was much closer to my mother than to my father, and I think he was jealous." Both of Mansell's parents are now dead, but he says pointedly, "The public doesn't realize how tough it is to go through life without someone who loves you like your mum."
Mansell moved up to F/1 in 1980, becoming the United Kingdom's finest driver since Jackie Stewart. But he could never win over the British press. "One of them wrote that my wife was ugly and called my children brats," Mansell says. His personality was said to be "as turgid as his Midlands accent," and it was duly noted that "in his pressed flannels and loafers with white socks," Mansell looked distressingly "like a Hoover salesman."
The British motoring press prefers that its drivers look like Spitfire pilots and speak like Oxford dons, and Mansell's flat monotone made him sound irredeemably working class to the considerable number of British fans—and journalists—for whom that mattered. Most galling of all to his critics was that Mansell always seemed to be drawing attention to some new infirmity. In truth, he is not a man to let his suffering go unnoticed or unappreciated. His triumph over pain has been interpreted as courage by his admirers, as overblown by others. Last year, after Mansell won the Monaco Grand Prix, his oft-injured left foot, which would later require surgery, was so painful that he couldn't stand up. "It was a rousing exhibition," wrote Nigel Roebuck in the British magazine Autosport, "but why, oh why, did we have the post-race theatre [of Mansell's] falling down in front of the royal box."
After his crash in Phoenix, Mansell arrived at Long Beach limping a bit too noticeably for some peoples' tastes. A photograph that appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, showing Mansell writhing in pain as he was lifted out of his car after practice runs, further inflamed his critics. During rookie orientation at Indianapolis, driver Nelson Piquet, a former F/1 teammate who once called Mansell an "uneducated blockhead," offered to pay to have T-shirts bearing that photo made and distributed along Gasoline Alley.
Yet, Mansell's back was a canvas of bruises when he took the pole at Long Beach. Almost every morning of the week before the race, a doctor drained 100 cc of blood from his back to reduce the swelling. Still, Mansell pushed so hard for the pole at Long Beach that during his quickest lap, he clipped the wall twice and locked up the brakes once after carrying too much speed into a corner. "He's very quick, and he's very brave," Haas says. "You can see it in the way he attacks a corner, how deep he drives the car in before he gets on the brake."
Mansell also has driven his crews hard, sometimes blaming the technicians after a bad run. "He had a reputation in Formula One for being kind of a crybaby about nitpicky things," says Haas. "If everything wasn't just right, he'd get upset."
Even when everything went perfectly for him, as it did last year, Mansell's ride never seemed to be smooth. Midway through Mansell's march to the world championship, Williams signed Prost to a SK) million contract for 1993. Mansell, who in '90 had lost a battle for the No. 1 spot among Ferrari drivers when he and Prost were teammates with that marque, made it clear that he would not be teamed with Prost again. Williams calculated that Mansell, who had the world title sewn up, would want to defend his championship, so he reduced his initial salary offer of $10 million for the '93 season by half. "I think," says Haas, "they played it rather stupid."
Mansell strode into the press room before finishing the Italian Grand Prix in Monza to announce his "retirement" from Formula One, only to have a messenger from Williams rush in and whisper a new offer into Mansell's ear. "I was offered another $5 million to stay," Mansell says. "And for about 10 seconds I considered it. But it added insult to injury to think I could be prostituted and bought. If they'd said $10 million, maybe." Soon thereafter, he completed his deal with Newman-Haas.
Mansell has bought a home in Clearwater, Fla., not far from his best friend and occasional golfing partner, Greg Norman, and he seems resigned to his exile from F/1. "How could I ever go back?" he says. "Senna's got McLaren stitched up. Prost has got Williams stitched up." And now Indy has him stitched up.
He could go back to Britain at any time, of course. He was knighted by the Queen two years ago, and he has a large estate on the semi-autonomous Isle of Man, where he and his family lived for 10 years and where his name is on the currency. His face also appears on postage stamps there, which is the only way to lick him anymore. And, of course, he does do windows. What remains to be seen now is whether he does oval tracks, and for how long.