For Mario Andretti, Long Beach Race Is Just a Sunday Drive

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Mario Andretti may have ushered in a new era in automotive racing technology Sunday.

Or then again, it may have been only another display of the magnificent driving talent of the 47-year-old Italian-born American who already has one world championship, four national championships, a Daytona 500 and an Indianapolis 500 to his credit.

Andretti drove a car with an Ilmor-Chevrolet engine to its first victory of any kind in the 13th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The win broke an 84-race win streak for cars powered by the turbocharged Ford Cosworth.

The margin, nearly 1 1/2 laps, devastated the 24-car field that started in the first Indy car race of 1987.


A crowd of 83,000--the largest in Long Beach history, including the Formula One era--witnessed a runaway win by the tomato-red Lola on a cool, sunny day made for fast racing. Andretti averaged a record 85.33 m.p.h. in a race run without a yellow caution flag.

Oscar winner Paul Newman, co-owner with Chicago businessman Carl Haas of the winning Lola T-8700, greeted Andretti with a bear hug after the team took its victory lap on the parade truck. As Andretti climbed down off the truck, Newman said: “Tell you what, Mario, you do the driving, I’ll do the acting and we’ll let Carl write the script.”

Mario just grinned, the grin of a man who had just won $97,410 for a Sunday drive of 1 hour 51 minutes 33.036 seconds during which he was never out of the lead.

Emerson Fittipaldi, in another Chevy-powered car, tailed Andretti for 52 of the 95 laps, until he coasted to a stop with a burned-out waste gate. Andretti could not seem to shake the two-time world champion from Brazil as they pulled steadily away from the rest of the field.


“Emerson definitely was keeping me honest,” Andretti said. “He was running every bit as good as we were. We were flat out right from the beginning because he kept right on my tail.”

Once Fittipaldi dropped out, however, the outcome was only a question of Andretti finishing.

It took him only 15 laps after Fittipaldi dropped out to lap the entire field.

Al Unser Jr. finished second, as he did last year behind Mario’s son, Michael, and Tom Sneva was third. They were both more than a lap behind Andretti, but a lap ahead of fourth-place Michael Andretti.


This was the fourth year Indy cars have raced at Long Beach and the fourth win for the Andretti family. Mario won in 1984 and 1985, and Michael won last year.

In addition to that, Mario won a Formula One race in 1977 and Michael a Super Vee race on the seaside course in 1983.

“I guess Long Beach belongs to the Andrettis,” Al Unser Jr. said with a laugh. “One of these days we’ll have to get them out of Long Beach.”

Andretti was lavish in praise of the new Chevy engine, which he was using for the first time since it was developed last year by the Penske team of Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan.


“The engine was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Toward the end of the race, when a driver usually hears funny sounds from his engine, all I heard was the Chevrolet buzzing just perfect.

“The chassis, the gearbox, the engine were picture perfect. It was one of those days when everything goes well.”

The quote was almost identical to one he made in 1984 when he also won wire to wire.

Andretti, in his 24th year driving Indy cars, may have put the finish to an era of Cosworth engines that he helped to start. When the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team decided to end its Formula One program in the mid-70s, Andretti suggested that the team turbocharge some of the Cosworth Formula One engines to use in their Indy cars.


“The Offy had gone about as far as it could and it was time for some new ideas and we came up with the Cosworth,” Andretti said. “The Cosworth has been just about the finest racing engine ever made, but it’s gone about as far as it can go, too, so it’s time for another change.”

The new engine is the product of a joint venture among Chevrolet, Penske and Ilmor Engineering of Brixworth, England, where they are built. They are turbocharged 2.65-liter double overhead cam V-8s, and are the first pure racing engines from Chevy since Louis Chevrolet’s winning Frontenac motors of the early 1920s.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Rick (Mears) and Danny (Sullivan) because I know they wanted to keep the Chevy engines to themselves for awhile longer to cash in on all the work they put in,” Andretti said.

“I’ve felt the same way when I did all the testing on the Lola and then some other guys get one and run with me. I hated the hell out of seeing another Lola go fast with all my development work, but that’s the economics of racing.”


The Penske team had exclusive use of the new engine last year but its best finish was a pair of thirds at Elkhart Lake and Miami.

Mears was the only other Chevy driver to finish Sunday’s race and he was back in ninth place, five laps behind Andretti.

“Considering we lost three laps in the pits (to unstick his gearbox), I guess we should be happy with the first race for the PC-16,” Mears said. “I could back off the throttle just a little and keep smooth, but if I gave it just a little too much, the tires would heat up and I’d go swinging back and forth. So, I’d have to back off and start over.”

Sullivan, the 1985 Indy car champion who was driving an identical Penske PC16, dropped out early.


“We were running OK, just behind Little Al (Unser) when the waste gate valve popped off and cut the RPM,” Sullivan explained. “I tried turning the boost knob, but it didn’t do anything. Finally the engine just died and I tried to coast back to the pits, but we seized the fuel metering unit.”

Bobby Rahal, the defending Indy car champion and the Indianapolis 500 winner, continued his string of poor luck at Long Beach.

He was the first car out of the race when he brushed the wall on the fifth lap and damaged the suspension on his Cosworth-powered Lola.

“I was just taking it easy and didn’t think I was that close to the wall,” said Rahal, who was running in sixth place at the time. “Then, I hit the wall and tore the suspension up. It was a private accident.”


The incident was reminiscent of 1985 when Rahal was leading and plowed into a tire barrier on the first lap--the first car out that year, too.

Last year he managed only 27 laps before damaging his rear suspension.

“In spite of everything, I don’t think I’m jinxed here,” Rahal said. “Then again . . . “

After the Andretti-Fittipaldi battle ended, the day’s best race was between Al Unser Jr. and Roberto Guerrero for second place. Guerrero was running in third position with only eight laps remaining when he was called in by CART officials because his car was leaking oil.


Guerrero, who had led 111 of 112 laps at Miami in the last race of 1986 before running out fuel and handing the win to Unser Jr., went back out but shortly aftewards stopped in the Hyatt Regency hotel garage tunnel with a fire in his engine.

“Me and Roberto were going at it real good for about 20 laps,” Unser said. “It was the most fun I had all day. He was ahead of me until we ran into some traffic and it kinda caught him the wrong way and gave me a chance. We had some good dicing.”

Guerrero, a talented Colombian driver who now lives in San Juan Capistrano, said it was about time for his luck to change. He has finished second three times, including his rookie year at Indianapolis, but has yet to win since switching from Formula One to Indy cars.

“When are we going to get rid of bad luck?” he wailed. “We had problems with the buckle valve and I think it damaged the engine. I lost the clutch and the brakes. I lost everything.”


Only 13 of the 24 cars were running at the finish as the bouncing and bucking from the rough surface of the city streets took its toll of the equipment.