Remembering Morris Nunn, 1938-2018

Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

Remembering Morris Nunn, 1938-2018

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Remembering Morris Nunn, 1938-2018

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After Regazzoni was paralyzed in a crash at Long Beach in 1980 after the brake pedal snapped on his Ensign, Nunn was broke and disillusioned with F1, so he headed for the United States and took a job with George Bignotti.

“We fought like cats and dogs but I learned a lot from George, he was a very street smart,” was Morris’ recollection of Indy’s master mechanic.

Nunn went to work for Vince Granatelli with Guerrero in 1987 and won races before linking up with Pat Patrick. Reunited with the man who took his F1 ride, Nunn and Fittipaldi teamed up to win the 1989 Indianapolis 500 in a Penske chassis (“That was great, beating them with their own car!” he exclaimed).

By 1992, Chip Ganassi had started a CART team and Nunn came on board to work with Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk, Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta and some Italian named Zanardi.

“He was the most argumentative driver I ever met but he was also the best at passing cars I’ve ever seen,” was how Nunn described ‘The Pineapple.’

“Morris was the best thing that ever happened to my career,” said Zanardi, who went from F1 castoff to two-time CART champion in 1997-98 on Nunn’s watch. “We spoke the same language and I loved driving for him and being around him.

“For three years he was my engineer and my best friend.”

Alex Zanardi (Chip Ganassi Racing/Reynard 97I-Honda) at Laguna Seca in 1997. (Image by LAT archive)

While Nunn and Zanardi would spend hours over dinner discussing chassis setups, the next Ganassi driver could have cared less. Juan Pablo Montoya was young, brash and fantastic on four wheels. He made Nunn crazy when he’d leave right after qualifying with the caveat: “It’s close enough Morris, it will be fine tomorrow.”

Montoya won in his third start at Long Beach and captured the 1999 title on the strength of five victories before winning Indy in 2000 for Ganassi after he crossed the picket line in the IRL/CART war.

“I was good on ovals and a lot of it was Morris, because he always kept me on a leash,” said Montoya, laughing at that memory on Wednesday. “He would say, ‘Just be patient, it will come,’ and it always did. He really knew was gong on and he was a really cool head who stayed calm and that made a big difference.

“A cool thing was that when you were in trouble he could come up with setups and go a different way and try something we’d never run. I was nowhere at Mid-Ohio once and he did that and we went out and won the race. I never really needed to worry, I would just tell him to get it close and he did the rest.”

Nunn and Montoya in 1999 (Image by Michael Levitt/LAT)

Ganassi knew what a gem he had so he even got a private plane to keep his engineer happy in 2000.

“Morris was the best at getting the most out of our drivers,” said Ganassi on Wednesday morning. “They threw away that mold. He worked tirelessly in ways I don’t see today. His fingerprints are still all over our team and he left an indelible mark in our sport.”

After Montoya’s departure Nunn decided to start his own CART team and suffered a devastating emotional blow when Zanardi (who had returned from F1) lost both legs in a hideous crash in Germany. Mo Nunn Racing joined the IRL full-time in 2002 – winning his only race in 2004 with Alex Barron.

From then on it was time to relax with his lovely wife Kathryn and concentrate on golf. He became obsessed with the game and probably owned 50 drivers because he was always looking for the newest way to add 10 yards.

He contracted Parkinson’s in 2009 and it steadily eroded that brilliant mind and his body. He came to Phoenix in 2015 and got to visit with Montoya and that made him smile for the rest of the day.

Nunn asked an innocent question back in the early ’80s about whether all ovals had left-handed turns. A couple CART guys started laughing at him but were quickly quieted by longtime F1/IndyCar mechanic Bevan Weston.

“That guy has forgotten more about race cars than you clowns will ever know,” said Weston. “He’s one the smartest and hardest-working people you will ever meet and just give him a couple years to figure out ovals and he’ll start kicking your ass.”

Did he ever. With that quiet sensibility, pragmatic approach, racer’s brain and cheeky smile, he put Guerrero in Victory Lane and Dick Simon’s car on the front row at Indy, scored a few wins with Mario at Newman/Haas and then lifted Ganassi to CART’s catbird seat for four straight years.

Mo didn’t flaunt his success but he was proud of going from his tiny garage floor to the pinnacle of American motorsports and it was a joy to follow his amazing ascension. And it was even better to call this delightful British import our friend.

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