We're celebrating 50 years of racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with personal recollections from some of the racers who've made their mark at one of America's finest natural-terrain tracks. This week, U.S. racing legend Mario Andretti takes center stage.
Andretti won from the pole for Newman/Haas Racing in the 1984 PPG/CART Indy Car World Series, took the pole again in '86, and also scored a memorable 1-2 with son Michael in '90, albeit with the younger Andretti leading the way at the checkers.
Mario's final appearance at Mid-Ohio as a driver came in 1994, but he's still a regular visitor to the track. In recent years, it's been to follow the progress of his grandson, Marco, currently racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Michael's Andretti Autosport team.
The challenges and the keys to going fast at Mid-Ohio are the same as they were when Mario was racing. So, as Marco strives to make it three generations of Andretti on the Mid-Ohio roll of honor, here are Grandpa's thoughts on what you need to be competitive there…
Mid-Ohio is a real driver's track, and by that I mean one where a good driver can separate himself from the others, and where a driver can hustle a car that's not working at its best. So it's very satisfying to get a pole position there. You have to slide the car and, coming over the crests, you have to prepare yourself for the car to tweak out of line as it goes light. It's quite a lot of fun, to some degree.
It's all about getting the balance, with a capital “B.” You need a neutral car – a loose car is useless, and an understeering car isn't good either. However, I'd rather have understeer around there, because so long as you have a powerful car, you can get very aggressive with the throttle to try and neutralize the understeer.
But, like I say, what you want is balance, and Mid-Ohio demands a lot of that, because those elevations send the car light, and you'd better be pointing in the right direction when you come out on the other side!
Any time you can win from pole, you know you had a good car under you. So, weekends like we had with Newman/Haas Racing at Mid-Ohio in 1984 (RIGHT, photo by Paul Webb), when I did just that, are a great memory. When the car's working that well, it's not so taxing physically, and that gives you a chance to relax and get into a proper rhythm, and that's really what that track is all about.
Bobby Rahal was second that year and he was always very quick there, so that was a good measure of how we were doing. Once I realized I could control the gap I had over him, I remember thinking, “Good, I've got everything I need,” and then it became a case of just focusing on that rhythm.
Another great day for us at Mid-Ohio was in 1990, when Michael and I scored a 1-2 as teammates for Newman/Haas (BELOW, photo by Dan Boyd). I remember so clearly that it was a brutal day in terms of the heat factor; up on the podium afterward, we were really spent, basically just hanging on to each other. I tell you, when I look back on my career, and see the number of times Michael and I were on podiums together, they are really shining points in my career. To stand there with your own son – even though he won! – gives you a special feeling, outside of being a competitor. Those are cherished memories.
I remember I was leading the middle part of that race, but it rained at about two-thirds distance and we didn't take any front wing out when we went to the wet tires, so the car was really loose and I couldn't get the power down. So, with about 20 laps to go, Michael came past me. He was always just unbelievably relentless, and anyway he was really at the top of his game at that time.
Heat was a major reason for that particular race being physically tough, but it's a very physical track anyway, and particularly in the dry, because the pavement surface has so much grip.
I remember, up at the Keyhole, there were at least three different lines you could take, so each session you'd be searching for the one that allowed you to use the most throttle. It was interesting – a voyage of discovery, if you will – because the line that was best for you could vary according to the tire compound, the amount of rubber on the track surface at that point in the weekend, the car's basic handling characteristics, and so on.
A lot of the corners at Mid-Ohio are slow- to-medium speed, apart from Turn 1 and Turn 11, of course, so you have to be able to put the power down. For example, at the rise before the start-finish line, if you were able to put the power down while you were still on the very crest, I remember we could pick up an extra 300rpm by the time we got to Turn 1. So I remember good dampers were absolutely crucial there.
There are many features about the Mid-Ohio layout that I really like – corners with double apexes, and so on – and because it's very technical and the straights are pretty short, there's never much time to relax as a driver.
It always keeps you thinking and it's physically quite demanding, yet it's crucial that you got yourself into a rhythm. I'd say it's definitely one of America's classic tracks.
Next week: Bobby Rahal.
For more on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and its 50th season of racing, visit the official website at MidOhio.com.
Coming up Aug. 5-7 in an action-packed 2011 schedule is a doubleheader starring the IZOD IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series. To purchase weekend or single-day tickets for the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge/Honda Indy 200, CLICK HERE.
Sept. 16-18, the Grand-Am Rolex Series takes center stage with the EMCO Gears Classic presented by KeyBank. For tickets, CLICK HERE.