What can Fernando Alonso do in an Indy car? We are about to find out.
The buzz surrounding Alonso at today’s Indianapolis 500 is madly global! Many F1 drivers feel the Indianapolis 500 is a feather they all need in their cap to round out a stellar career, even if some won’t admit it. Alonso has said as much.
But how will he add his name to the long list of F1 champions to give Indy a try?
In 1952, Alberto Ascari came to Indy with a factory Ferrari but only managed 31st place.
Sir Jack Brabham brought a tiny Cooper Climax to Indy in 1961 and changed Indy forever. The tough men who drove the roadsters made fun of the spidery underpowered Cooper.
“Rear-engine cars are for men who like to be pushed around” was common usage in Gasoline Alley. Brabham finished ninth, but racing teams realized the days of the beautiful roadsters were over. Entry lists would soon read RE for rear-engine and FR for front-engine cars. It took several years to complete the cycle, but the heritage of the beautiful Indy cars began with Sir Jack.
Jimmy Clark, quiet, shy and a true artist behind the wheel, scored the first rear-engine win at Indy in 1965. Lotus and Ford jumped in with an engine and chassis designed to handle the grueling 500 miles. Clark was my first big interview at Indianapolis (see photo at right). I was a struggling broadcaster with garage access only. Clark was willing to talk. I couldn’t believe it.
A massive accident at the start of the 1966 race eliminated 11 contenders. Indy rookie Graham Hill took full advantage and won. At the victory banquet, he chided track owner Tony Hulman, complaining the restroom stalls had no doors for privacy. Tony took it well and the doors were there the next year.
The flamboyant Scot Sir Jackie Stewart tried hard to find an Indy win, but the three-time F1 champion was a crusader for racing safety and affected many changes that bettered the sport. When he stopped racing, Stewart became a TV color commentator for ABC Sports’ Indy 500 broadcasts. I had the honor of working with him in 1987 at NBC covering CART races.
Mario Andretti, one of the best ambassadors for Indy car racing won both Indy in 1969 and was an F1 champion in 1978. Emerson Fittipaldi was a two-time world driving champ and won Indy twice.
Then there is Nigel Mansell, the F1 champ in 1992 and CART champ in 1993. The collector of fine art wanted Indy badly, but quit after two tries with a best finish of third.
In December 1992, the late, great Ayrton Senna tested a Penske PC-21 at Phoenix. The three-time F1 champion impressed everyone but stayed on the other side of the pond.
Now comes Alonso to try the 800 left turns today. He and Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti are completing the circle since Andretti drove for McLaren in ’93 while Mansell drove Indy cars.
Alonso has a steep hill to climb. This will be the longest race he’s driven. When the 300-mile mark passes, he is in all new territory.
The world’s largest single-day sporting event has humbled and honored many f1 champions. Alonso has the Andretti team – four-time Indy 500 winners – backing him. Michael Andretti will call the tactics and talk Alonso through the 500 miles. Altogether it is a very promising enterprise.
Where is Alonso’s road going? We can only guess. But there is no doubt the ride for all of us will be thrilling.