CONCORD, N.C. – What would it take to put a racing legend behind the wheel on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s new road course?
For Mario Andretti, it was fulfilling a simple request: A high-performance car with a highly limited production run.
Fortunately, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith’s family is in the business of selling cars as well as racing them, so procuring a 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid was easier than it might have been for many.
“My brother happened to have one,” Smith said on this week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Listen, that is crazy. I haven’t driven that car. I’m afraid to drive that car. It’s a $1 million car. They only made 918 of them.
“I said, ‘I’m not driving but I’ll check.’ My brothers both said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Mario!’ ”
Andretti, a veteran of famous road courses around the world as a 1978 Formula One champion (as well as a winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, the only driver to capture all three), toured the Roval in a March 2017 session. According to the track, Andretti reached a top speed at 177 mph in the 887-horsepower car.
“My brother David rode along with Mario which was extremely brave and crazy at the same time,” Smith said. “David made the mistake of asking Mario not to push too hard, which he did the opposite. This is just a super car. Before he drove it, Mario said, ‘I’ll drive it and give you feedback. If I like it, I’ll tell everybody else. If I don’t, I won’t tell anybody but you.’”
The track earned a seal of approval from Andretti, who told Smith the course was much better than he’d anticipated (“he was really surprised by the elevation changes and the camber in the turns”) and also offered two pieces of advice:
–An enhanced infield camping area because “that’s what all the great road courses in Europe have. An area where all the fans are right in the middle, and it makes it a lot more fun,” Smith said Andretti told him. The track has added pedestrian walkover bridges to provide more vantage points on the 17-turn, 2.28-mile layout.
–A chicane on the backstretch to reduce speeds. That was added after Cup drivers confirmed Andretti’s suggestion in other test sessions last year. “Mario said, ‘You’re going too fast,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘You sound like a driver!’ He said, ‘No, you need that chicane.’ That was in my mind.
“And we came back from testing and they said if we don’t have a chicane, we’ll make the tires so hard that it won’t be good on the infield road course, which may not be the best choice. We added the chicane, which works out fine, allows more competitive passing and you get another passing point on the track.”
During the podcast, Smith also discusses:
–The origins of moving the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval to a road course;
–his reactions to Cup drivers feeling daunted by the layout;
–why he believes road courses are the new short tracks.
If you could bend time … regardless of eras, what four drivers would you like to see race for the win at Daytona?
Nate Ryan: Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. David Pearson and Richard Petty. When I think of winners in magical moments at Daytona, those are the four names that initially come to mind. The next question would be: Does the race happen with or without restrictor plates?
Dustin Long: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Mario Andretti. All Daytona 500 winners and among the greats in racing.
Daniel McFadin: Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 2004, Dale Earnhardt Sr. from 1991, Bill Elliott from 1988 and Brad Keselowski from today. Give them some IROC cars from 1999 and let them loose for 25 laps.
Dan Beaver: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I’m not sure who would win, but it would certainly be spectacular.
What driver currently outside a playoff spot is one you think has the best chance to win Saturday’s race at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC)?
Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. The two-time winner at Daytona always is a solid driver in plate races if he can avoid the wrecks and getting antsy in the draft.
Dustin Long:Ryan Newman. He’s won at Daytona before and his teammate, Austin Dillon, won the Daytona 500 in February. Richard Childress Racing could make it two in a row there.
Daniel McFadin: I think Paul Menard could be a sleeper. He’s finished in the top six in his last three Daytona starts. He and AJ Allmendinger are the only drivers who have finished in the top 10 in the last three Daytona races.
Dan Beaver: The defending winner of this race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has a knack for plate racing and could get into the playoffs this week.
However, do you remember what happened 20 years ago this week?
An Andretti won at Daytona.
Thirty years after Mario Andretti won his only Daytona 500, his nephew John Andretti put his name in the history books by winning the 1997 Firecr … I mean, the Pepsi … wait, the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.
You know what I mean.
On July 5, 1997, the 34-year-old Andretti won his first Cup race, what was then the Pepsi 400.
That weekend Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were exterminating space bugs in theaters in Men in Black. In music, the top song was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy … I mean P. Diddy. No, it’s Sean Combs. Yeah, that’s it.
You know what I mean.
When ESPN began its broadcast of the race, Andretti was third on the grid. He was next to Gordon and behind the Richard Childress Racing front row of Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt. The latter was in the midst of his first winless season since 1981.
To get the audience up to speed, ESPN featured a series of four musical montages to recap the season to date.
The songs of choice are in included in the below Spotify playlist.
In none of the storylines set up by those montages was Andretti’s name mentioned.
He drove the No. 98 RCA Ford owned by Cale Yarborough, who himself won at Daytona nine times in his racing career. Andretti was in his fourth full year of Cup racing and was three years removed from being the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 in the same day.
As the field came to the green, Andretti was 27th in the points and had only one top-10 finish through 15 races, a fourth-place finish at Talladega.
By Lap 3, Andretti was in the lead after having led only 20 laps the whole season – 19 at Talladega and one at Pocono.
On Lap 12, announcer Bob Jenkins made first mention of Andretti seeking his first Cup win. The son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother, Aldo, John Andretti made his first NASCAR start in October 1993 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for Tex Powell.
By July 1997, the cousin to Michael Andretti had only earned four top fives in 109 starts.
Here’s an observation on restrictor-plate racing in the mid-1990s – it was better.
This isn’t intended to be a typical “the racing then was better” statement.
In the years since tandem drafting was banned, restrictor-plate racing has largely become a large pack of cars where moves must be cherry picked at the right time and nothing can change for laps on end.
But in 1997, 10 years into the plate era, the field wasn’t bunched together, almost held against its will. While still close in proximity, drivers had room to maneuver in a slightly strung out snake, with no clearly defined lines. A driver could make something happen more easily without the risk of starting the “Big One.”
Instead of keeping your eyes on the screen waiting for chaos to break out, you were left waiting to see who made a push toward the front.
And when something bad did happen, chances were half the field wasn’t taken out … probably.
This was the case on Lap 33, when Jimmy Spencer got turned on the backstretch and only Chad Little and Mike Skinner were caught in it.
It resulted in the first pit stops of the day and a near scare for Andretti as he left the pits and Gordon nearly took him out at the pit exit.
He restarted second behind Bill Elliott and had the lead back by the time the field got to Turn 4.
Andretti’s previous career best for laps led was 41 in the 1995 Southern 500. In this race, he led 80 of the first 89 laps.
All the videos in the post are from a YouTube video that is the raw satellite feed from the ESPN broadcast, which means you don’t see the commercials.
“Hey guys, I don’t know if you can get a shot of him, but Cale Yarborough is on top of the RCA truck in the garage and he’s so excited. He’s taking on the radio, he’s driving the race car. He’s cracking the guys up in the pit. He’s saying, ‘John, John, go help the 3, help that 4, help that 3, help that 4.’ They’re just dying. They said he’s jumping up and down on top of the truck.”
ESPN never got a shot of him.
Yarborough had reason to be excited. A 83-time Cup winner as a driver, Yarborough was a car owner from 1987 – when he drove for himself – to 1999. He fielded cars for Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope and Jeremy Mayfield. Andretti replaced Mayfield with eight races left in the 1996 season.
In 371 races, Andretti’s win would be the only visit to victory lane for Yarborough as an owner.
“And I was just as happy walking in there as I was when I was driving in there,” Yarborough said.
With 43 laps to go, Andretti pulled off a maneuver that would be declared illegal in today’s NASCAR. Going down the backstretch, Andretti dove his No. 98 Ford down below the dotted white line to get by Rusty Wallace into fifth.
This was similar to the move Gordon made on Bill Elliott six months earlier on the frontstretch that eventually led to him winning the Daytona 500.
Speaking of Gordon.
The 1995 Cup champion was on his way to his second title that season. He would do it on the back of 10 wins, which matched his total from 1996. From 1995-97, the “Rainbow Warriors” won 27 times and they would add a modern record 13 in 1998.
By July 1997, many in the grandstands were sick of it.
So, when Gordon smacked the backstretch wall on Lap 125, they let their pleasure be known as the No. 24 limped to pits.
If you want to party like it’s 1997, you have my permission to crank this up while you sip a cold Pepsi or a Coca-Cola depending on your sponsor obligations.
When the race went green with 30 to go, Andretti was second. A lap later he had to take the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Spencer three-wide to make a clear path to Mark Martin.
Now Andretti was experiencing déjà vu. Earlier in the year, Andretti finished fourth to Martin in the caution free Winston 500 at Talladega, a race he had the pole for and led 19 laps of early on. That day, no one could get out of line to take a shot at Martin in the closing laps.
“I got behind Mark and thought, ‘Not like Talladega again,’” Andretti said later, according to the Associated Press. “Luckily for me Bill Elliott pushed me through. I guess I owe Bill a check for this.”
The drafting help from Elliott came on Lap 137 after coordination between the two team’s spotters.
By the time there was 13 laps to go, The Intimidator was stalking his prey in the form of Andretti. Earnhardt was running in second, followed by Dale Jarrett and Martin.
The end of the race was heating up when the final caution of the race waved for a five-car crash in Turns 1 and 2 with four to go.
As the field raced back to the flag – which was still a thing at this point – ESPN cameras caught the No. 98 crew mildly celebrating, thinking the race was over.
They were wrong.
The wreck was cleaned in time for a final lap, with the green and white flag being displayed together.
When they waved, Andretti had a rear-view mirror full of a certain black car.
As Andretti celebrated his win, Ward Burton was put on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital to be tested for a concussion, but results were negative.
Also negative were driver reactions to how the race ended.
“That wasn’t a shootout,” Earnhardt said. “That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that.”
Said Kyle Petty, “What they just had is a recipe for somebody getting hurt real bad. NASCAR got what they wanted, the fans didn’t get anything because they saw some of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won. Why didn’t we just end it under caution?”
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO: John Andretti
When it came to NASCAR, Andretti wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
He won once more in 393 Cup starts. Two years later, while in his second stint in the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises, Andretti found victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after leading only the final four laps.
His last full-time season came in 2002.
From 2003-10 Andretti competed sporadically in Cup while competing in one full Xfinity campaign in 2006.
His final NASCAR start came in the 2010 Daytona 500, where he finished 38th for Front Row Motorsports after a crash.
From 2007-11, he made 10 starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The final four, which included three attempts at the Indianapolis 500, were in a No. 43 Honda co-owned by Andretti Autosport and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Of the nearly 200 congratulatory messages Ryan Blaney received after his first career Cup win last weekend at Pocono Raceway, one stood out.
“The coolest one I got, it wasn’t a text, but Mario Andretti tweeted at me,” Blaney said Friday morning at Michigan International Speedway. “That was really cool. That was probably the neatest one I saw.”
Blaney said before he answered all his text messages, he called his father. With a 45-minute drive to the airport and time before the plane took off, Blaney said he was able to respond to all the text messages he received.
While technology allowed many to reach out to Blaney after the win, he took an old-school approach to how he celebrated his win. No burnout.
“This year I kind of decided I didn’t want to do one any more,” Blaney said. “When I was younger I used to do them and loved them. They’re fun to do. I thought it was fitting not to do one in the Wood Brothers car because traditionally that’s not how they used to do it. They used to kind of go around and wave to the fans. I really didn’t see any negative things about not doing a burnout. Everyone thought that was pretty neat.”
We now have two positive reviews of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.
Following AJ Allmendinger‘s comments back in January, IndyCar legend Mario Andretti has shared his thoughts on the 2.4-mile circuit that will likely host a NASCAR Cup race in fall 2018.
As a guest of the track and the NASCAR Racing Experience, the 77-year-old driver piloted two cars – a 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid and a 2017 Cadillac CTS-V. Andretti maxed out at 177 mph in the Porsche.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to really create a road course where you can ‘stretch your legs’ inside an oval,” Andretti said in a press release. “From that standpoint, I think they did a good job by giving it rhythm by putting some banking to the hairpin corners – which obviously invites some overtaking. It’s wide enough that you can choose a line. You’re not really trapped. … It’s got a multiple-line (groove) that you can choose from, depending on the capability of the car.”
The “roval” circuit would use most of the 1.5-mile oval NASCAR already competes on.
“We have done a lot to engineer a world-class road course that would include the ‘roval,'” Smith told NBC Sports, adding that “several truckloads of crash walls and catchfence” were being transported in for installation.
The Cup Series has two road courses on it schedule, at Sonoma Raceway in California and Watkins Glen International in New York.