Saturday’s Phoenix Grand Prix is significant for many reasons in the sport of racing — specifically IndyCar — as it not only serves as the first of six oval circuits in the 2018 Verizon series, but also as the last race win of the now 78-year-old Italian-born driving legend Mario Andretti.
The 255.5-mile (411km) Desert Diamond West Valley Casino-sponsored race marks the 25th anniversary of Andretti’s 52nd and finally Indy car win at what was then known as Phoenix Raceway. Three-time US ‘Driver of the Decade’ and the Associated Press ‘Driver of the Century’ was joined by 1996 IndyCar series champion Jimmy Vasser, who finished third at that historic race in 1993 — the first podium of his career — on a pre-race teleconference on Wednesday.
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Vasser for one made no attempt to hide his glowing admiration for his former rival.
“To me, he was the epitome of a cool dude,” said Vasser. “Obviously the race wins and the championships, but he was just the coolest, even so much, Mario doesn’t know this, I did the historic race at Indy last year, where they have the Trans-Am car, kind of Father’s Day weekend, I bought an old Hinchman suit that’s a replica of Mario’s Indy 500 win.
“Everybody looks up to Mario,” he continued. “The biggest thing, he’s the king of cool, like Steve McQueen or something for me.”
For Andretti, the accolades are still very much appreciated.
“I mean, humbled and totally flattered, I assure you,” he said. “It’s so incredible that the whole promotion for this race surrounds something that happened 25 years ago.”
Andretti, who won major races across most all platforms and is the only driver to win the Formula One world championship, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and the Indy’s Indianapolis 500, is one of only 12 pole earners in the previous 63 editions at Phoenix to win the race and one of only nine to win and go on to win the Indy 500 in the same season.
With Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais earning the pole on Friday with an average time of 188.539 for his two qualifying laps around ISM Raceway’s 1.022-mile (1.64km) oval, he now has the opportunity to become driver 13 and 10 respectively.
“Let’s face it, Phoenix is probably one of the toughest ovals because it’s so fast,” Andretti told Eurosport. “We’ve seen with some of the changes they made to accommodate the stockcars, it made it even faster than what we experienced. That means the faster the corner in speed, the tougher it is to have any passing.
“But, like, I said, the series has reacted with the new aero kit,” he continued. “These drivers today, obviously if they can master Phoenix, you’re going to master any of the other ovals. Quite honestly, I think Phoenix would be more difficult to drive than Indianapolis.
“Again, you can measure yourself your own way by how you feel, how comfortable you feel, if you have your arms around it right here in Phoenix.
“I think it’s a very key event in my opinion. It’s the only oval before Indianapolis. I guarantee you it’s on all the drivers’ minds and the teams to say how well they will fair this weekend.”
With the positive exposure of new drivers, improved TV contracts and recent success at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg won by Bourdais.
“As you know, IndyCar had to do a lot of reconstruction after the disaster of the mid 90s,” he said. “It’s in a good path right now. I personally feel very positive that a lot of the good things that need to be done are being done right now.”
Vasser agreed with Andretti, but also believes there is still room for improvement as the sport continues to evolve.
“I’d like to see one more engine manufacturer really,” he told Eurosport. “I mean, we touched on a lot of positive things. I think one more engine manufacturer to take the load off of Honda and Chevy, to have that different angle of competition, I would like to see that.”
Andretti backs Vasser and shares a few other ideas that may help IndyCar continue its forward-thinking trajectory.
“Yeah, because it’s not only the fact that you’re taking the load, you have more to cheer for to some degree, but also the strength of any series at this level is manufacturers being part of it,” he explained further. “We always would welcome that with open arms. I know there’s a lot of effort going on to try to encourage another manufacturer to come in.
Like I said, there’s always something you can do better. I always personally say that. I don’t criticize,” Andretti continued. “But I say that I like to see the season going to October, November, rather than ending September. That’s been my pet peeve. But it is what it is.
“All in all, however, things are improving, improving from the point that is very, very important,” Andretti continued. “The sponsors always look at the TV coverage. Starting next year when we have one network involved, you have continuity.
“But we don’t rest on that,” he added. “You don’t rest to your laurels. You’re always going to try to improve. When it comes to the technical side, there’s always going to be the technical part of IndyCar, it will always be a reassessing situation as we go on. If we can do some things better aerodynamically, engine size, ‘push to pass’ on the ovals, who knows. It’s an ongoing thing. As long as you have that frame of mind that you’re always looking trying to improve what you have, you’re going to be doing okay.”
Andretti also believes race expansion is extremely important, with events in California, Florida and even Mexico in the cards.
“Obviously I can’t think that Laguna Seca could not be one,” said Andretti, who also expressed interest in a return to Fontana. “Then potentially there’s Florida.
“As far as races internationally, I think we’ve been international when CART was in its glory days,” he concluded. “We had a very strong international presence.
“If it makes sense, Mexico is definitely part of the conversation. I have a feeling that could be probably the next move. I hope it happens. I think that’s a healthy situation for the series.”
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