On the Comeback Trail : For Michael Chandler, a Long Wait to Race Again Is Over
Michael Chandler, whose promising Indy car career was cut short nearly two years ago in a 200-m.p.h. crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will return to racing next Sunday in the Los Angeles Times/Ford Grand Prix of Endurance at Riverside International Raceway.
Chandler will drive a Ford Thunderbird with Steve Cameron of New Zealand in the GTO class of the six-hour race. The car is owned and entered by Dennis Brisken of Novato, Calif., and will be sponsored by Campus Ford of Riverside.
“Getting back into a race car has been my consuming thought every day since I woke up in the hospital,” said Chandler, who will turn 28 Monday. “It is what has kept me going. I never lost the main ingredients, the desire, the will, to race again. I just had to wait until the healing process ran its course.
“All that time, I kept thinking of the race in Long Beach in 1984, when I was chasing Mario Andretti in second place until my car quit. I know I can do it again. Racing is all I ever wanted to do. It’s something that comes so naturally to me, it comes so easy.”
Chandler suffered a brain bruise, a broken nose and cuts on the face and left leg when his car, a 1984 Eagle powered by a stock-block Pontiac engine, smashed into the third turn wall on May 11, 1984, during the final hours of practice before time trials for the Indy 500 were to start the following day.
Earlier that week, Chandler had lapped the 2 1/2-mile oval at 206 m.p.h., an unofficial record for a stock-block powered car, and had been expected to easily make the field for his fourth Indianapolis 500 in the Dan Gurney-prepared Eagle.
“One of the sad things about my accident is that after spending four years dreaming of breaking the 200-m.p.h. barrier at Indy, I did it several times and now I can’t remember a thing about it,” Chandler said wryly.
Chandler has no recollection of incidents that occurred for about a month before the accident. That is not unusual for persons suffering head injuries such as his.
When the car slammed into the cement barrier at a slight angle, after skidding 340 feet, the impact broke off the right front tire and wheel and all of its suspension system. Chandler might have escaped with little more than bruises, but the wheel assembly rebounded into his face, driving his helmet into his forehead.
“It was really a freak thing,” Chandler said of the accident, which he has seen over and over on videotape in an attempt to discover its cause. “The right front of the tub dropped for some reason and dug a groove for more than a hundred yards in the track’s surface before it hit the wall. Pancho Carter was driving behind me and he said he saw the right front visibly drop, but the car was so damaged that the crew never did find out exactly why.
“You can see the left front wheel and suspension working properly when I start to turn, but when the G forces put the load on the right side, it wasn’t working and when the car started to leave the groove, I was just a passenger. A pretty frantic one, I imagine, but like I said, I don’t remember a thing about it.”
Chandler was air-lifted to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he lay in a coma for a week before regaining consciousness for several hours, only to lapse into a coma again for another week.
He spent three weeks in that hospital, then four days in the UCLA Medical Center.
“I started training, physically and mentally, a month after the crash to adamantly pursue my goal--to get back in a race car,” Chandler said.
“The doctors told me I might never have completely recovered if I hadn’t been in such good physical shape, been young and a nonsmoker. It has taken a lot longer to heal than I thought, but never once have I deviated from that goal.”
With the impetuousness of youth, Chandler thought he should have been allowed to race by the end of the ’84 season, barely four months after his accident.
“I was able to surf, and I was handling waves up to 8 to 10 feet, competing with some of the best surfers in the world without any problems. I thought, ‘Wow, if I can do this, why can’t I race?’
“Fortunately for me, my father and my doctor suppressed my desires. Looking back, I realize now I was nowhere near ready to get into a race car.”
Michael’s father is Otis Chandler, chairman of the Executive Committee of Times-Mirror Co. and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His doctor is Dr. Robert Sbordone of Fountain Valley.
“I went to a number of brain doctors and they kept referring me to Dr. Sbordone,” Chandler said. “It turned out that he and my father had been competitors in college in the shotput, my father at Stanford and Dr. Sbordone at USC. When I was 10 or 11, he used to work out at Caltech in Pasadena and watched my father and me jogging around Tournament Park. It was quite a surprising reunion when I went to him as a patient.”
It wasn’t until last October that Chandler was given the green light to return to competitive driving.
“I didn’t get into a race car until then, but I had really been testing my skills for more than a year,” he said. “About three months after the accident, I took my street car, a Pontiac Trans Am, to Riverside and Willow Springs to find out if I could still drive fast. I got up to 125 m.p.h. without any problems. It was just a matter of waiting until the doctor thought I was ready.”
In October, Chandler went to Bob Bondurant’s race driving school at Sears Point for three days of one-on-one instruction from Bondurant, a former Formula One driver, and Bill Cooper, the school’s chief instructor.
“Cooper had been my instructor 10 years before when my father took me to Bondurant’s school for my 18th birthday present,” Chandler said. “He had watched my career and often came to the track when I raced. I told him I wanted to be checked out thoroughly, that I wanted to be sure I had lost none of my racing skills.
“We were driving the school’s race-ready Ford Mustangs and I passed every test they had. We did nose-to-tail running, passing and repassing, stuff they call dog fighting, and I drove 40 to 50 laps at a time to check my consistency and my concentration. My lap times were good, like they used to be. And I practiced on the skid pad and scored well on an accident simulator test to check my reflexes.
“Everything I did re-cemented my belief that I’m fit for racing, that I have fully recovered. Bondurant oversaw the full three days and, when I left, he gave me a letter saying that I was fit for competition.”
At Sears Point, Chandler also met Dennis Brisken, who operates a racing shop at the facility.
“I did some testing of Formula Atlantic cars over the winter for Brisken,” Chandler said. “I knew I needed as much lap time as possible before I raced. The car I drove was a 270-horsepower machine, and I never missed a shift, never spun and never crashed.”
The T-Bird that Chandler will drive next Sunday is one of the best cars on the GTO circuit. It was driven by Willy T. Ribbs at Miami and led the entire 50-mile race until the last lap when he was passed by Scott Pruett in a Mustang.
When Ribbs attempted to repass, however, he rammed the Thunderbird into the side of Pruett’s car and, while they were untangling, Jack Baldwin went on to win in a Camaro. Ribbs was fined $2,000 for reckless driving. It was the largest fine ever levied against a driver by the International Motor Sports Assn.
After the race, Brisken bought the T-Bird, which was not badly damaged, from Brooks Racing.
Chandler estimates that he has driven 1,000 test miles preparing for his comeback, besides riding his dirt bike in the desert, playing racquetball and surfing.
“Everything I do is closely related to racing,” he said. “They all demand concentration, attention to detail, balance, strength and timing.”
Even though he is not entered, and has not driven under racing conditions for nearly two years, Chandler has not given up hope of driving in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“I would like to go back there for the second week of qualifying and find a car whose driver has not gotten it up to necessary speeds, and get it in the field,” he said. “I know I could do it. I’ve driven 200 m.p.h. there and I have the experience to qualify.”
Michael, who was married earlier this month to the former Mary Jean Crinion of San Clemente, will have the help of his bride in finding a car to drive. Mrs. Chandler has worked with several racing teams at Indianapolis in recent years.
“While I’m getting some seat time racing, my wife, Mary, is going back to Indy to start looking around for a ride,” Chandler said. “We hope she finds one by the second week, when all the switching around starts.”
Like racers everywhere, Chandler needs sponsorship to finance his racing habit.
“Being a Chandler has worked both ways for me,” he said. “Naturally, it opens a lot of doors, like getting Roger Penske’s assistance when I was driving Super Vees, and getting Mike Curb to help me.
“But it also works against me when I go to a potential sponsor and ask for money. He’ll usually ask me, ‘What do you need money for from me, when your family owns the Los Angeles Times?’ It’s hard for them to understand that I don’t get any money from the paper, or any other Times Mirror businesses. That’s why I’m working a 6:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. shift, to pay my bills.”
Chandler is a mail room maintenance specialist--a mechanical trouble-shooter--on the loading dock at The Times’ Orange County plant in Costa Mesa.
After skiing and racing motocross competitively while attending San Marino High School and Orange Coast College, Chandler competed in--and won--his first auto race in 1978, driving a Formula Super Vee in a Sports Car Club of America regional race at Riverside.
In 1979 he competed in both the United States Auto Club’s mini-Indy series--he was named rookie of the year--and the SCCA’s Bosch VW Gold Cup series. He won races at Michigan International Raceway, Texas World Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway, and set a track record at Texas with a speed of 156.372 m.p.h.
A.J. Foyt was there that day and, after watching Chandler drive, commented: “I don’t believe that young man is driving his first race on a track like this. He’s really a natural. He acts like he’s done it for years. That boy’s going to go a long way if he keeps driving the way he did today.”
Among the drivers Chandler defeated in his mini-Indy season were Geoff Brabham, Herm Johnson, Pete Halsmer, Josele Garza, Kevin Cogan and Dennis Firestone, all Indy car veterans, and Bobby Hillin, now a NASCAR stock car driver.
At Phoenix International Raceway in 1979, Chandler got a feeling of what it’s like to wreck a race car.
A tire went flat on his VW Rabbit in a Bilstein Cup race and, before he could stop, the car was hit by another car and went into a series of violent flips. Onlookers claimed that the car rolled 12 times before stopping. Chandler was fortunate that time. He was not injured.
From Super Vees, Chandler moved up to Indy cars in 1980, driving his first race at Ontario in the California 500 in a McLaren-Cosworth for Warner Hodgdon and Curb. He was running sixth 10 laps from the end of the 200-lap race when the engine failed and he wound up 14th.
He also branched out that year, driving with Dale Whittington to fourth place in The Times six-hour IMSA race in a year-old Porsche 935, and driving with his brother Norman to ninth place in the Parker 400 off-road championship race in a 1600cc VW Funco.
Chandler passed his rookie test for the 500 at Indianapolis in 1981 and qualified for the 25th starting position at 187.568. He was running at the finish and wound up 12th in only his second Indy car race.
Later that season, Chandler had his best Indy car finish, a fourth at Riverside behind Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock and Bill Alsup in the 500-kilometer race. He also drove with Preston Henn in the 24 Hours of LeMans in France, where he qualified 10th but fell out with mechanical failure.
In 1982, with backing from Curb and Bill Freeman, Chandler drove a new Eagle and set an Indy car record, 198.042 m.p.h., for a stock-block powered car. In the race he worked his way from 22nd to 6th and was running with the lead pack when the gearbox failed. He was credited with 17th place.
Driving for the Florida-based Rattlesnake racing team at Indianapolis in 1983, Chandler qualified 30th and finished 153 laps before another gearbox failed and he ended up 16th.
“I was never readier than I was in ’84 before the accident,” he said. “I’d been over 206 that morning and couldn’t wait until qualifying to set another record for nonturbocharged cars. I had never driven a car that felt so perfect as that one.
“Looking back, though, at the accident, I hope I can make it a positive steppingstone in my life. I am sure I have become a more mature driver, more mature in everything in life.”