Q: With all the chatter about Jimmie Johnson, good, bad, or whatever, I’m reminded of Eddie Lawson. I can find stats for his CART days, but I’d like to know what the atmosphere and paddock reaction was when he switched to four wheels. He’s never been one for interviews and we didn’t have all the information you could ever dream of back in the ’90s, so what did the four-wheel crew think of him? Did he pay his way into the field, or was he good enough to warrant the ride? Would his time be considered a success or just a stunt? There is no doubt he was a stud on two wheels, and his name is rightfully among the best ever for that discipline.
Travis, Lee’s Summit, MO
RM: I can’t recall if he brought sponsorship, but everyone loved the guy’s attitude and reputation. I never thought he got a fair shake because his ride wasn’t very good. I recall him carving through the field in the rain at Detroit and looking him afterwards and he smiled and said: “First I felt like I was racing somebody.” In the right circumstances, he could have been Joe Leonard.
Q: When the discussion comes up about the greatest drivers who could hop into anything with wheels and win (A.J. Rufus, Mario, Gurney), why isn’t Mark Donohue regularly mentioned in this elite group? He won the Indy 500, won the Riverside 500 in NASCAR, Can-Am and Trans Am championships, won the first IROC series, and finished fourth in the 1967 Le Mans. He was also one of the few (if not only) drivers of this era with an engineering degree. Yet I don’t hear his name mentioned as one of the greatest drivers. Why is this?
Brad from Powder Springs
RM: That’s a very good question. Mark came from SCCA and sports cars, Can-Am and didn’t grow up as a USACer, so that likely hurt his popularity since USAC was on top in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He didn’t run dirt (neither did Gurney) so that was another group of fans he didn’t cultivate, and he was only around for six years. But there is no denying his ability, chassis savvy and the fact he won Indy car races, banged wheels with Rufus, Follmer and Gurney in Trans Am and was a Can-Am star. I guess his mild-mannered and almost bashful persona worked against him as well. Was he one of the top 10 drivers of the ’70s? Hard to argue he wasn’t.
Q: I appreciated your comments on Jimmie Johnson and everything that you’ve said about Penske, NBC, and the owners, drivers, and sponsors who put their necks and wallets on the line for our entertainment. For those who haven’t noticed, all sports are having trouble keeping audiences. Even the mighty NFL wasn’t able to dictate terms like it usually does. Anyway, my question concerns what I think was the best pass I ever saw at Indianapolis. It was mid-to-late race and Michael Andretti came into Turn 1 behind three slower cars and passed them all, going outside, inside, outside in the corner. For the life of me, I can’t find a clip of that anywhere. Did I just imagine that, or can you tell me when it happened? If I didn’t imagine it, as a bonus, who would you consider your top three passers at Indy?
RM: Mears and Michael had the classic passes in consecutive laps in 1991, but Ruby and Johncock used the grass to their advantage for some amazing moves and Rossi’s back-to-front performance in 2018 has to rank as some of the best passes ever. But I don’t recall what you are referring to.
Q: The recent question on how drivers who are not highly paid support themselves in the off-season (or during the season) was an excellent one. Vuky had his gas station back in Fresno and Jim Clark his sheep farm in Scotland – if they had ever needed those endeavors to fall back on. You mentioned speaking engagements. I heard Roger Ward in the 1960s speak at a civic club in my hometown of Marion, Indiana, and Johnny Rutherford give a talk at the Valvoline tent on Carb Day in the 1970s. Both were quite good. The best after-dinner speaker, in my opinion, was Graham Hill. At his 1966 500 Victory Dinner speech he was humorous, entertaining, and with a straight face got a naughty joke past all but a few in the audience. Which drivers do you think were or are the best speakers?
RM: Uncle Bobby, J.R., Sneva and Gary B. (after a few drinks) were the most entertaining.
Q: Did you come to any of the European CART races at Rockingham, Brands Hatch or Lausitzring? If so, any recollections you’d care to share, other than Zanardi’s awful crash? It’s always a pleasure to read the Mailbag and I look forward to many more.
RM: Yep, my best memory is the first race at Rockingham. No practice because of weepers, a 10-minute warm-up and then one of the most exciting oval-track races ever between Brack and de Ferran. I was mostly impressed with the British fans, they sat there all day and didn’t boo or throw things, even after they kept shortening the race distance because the sun was going down. And my F1 journo pals Nigel Roebuck, Maurice Hamilton and Murray Walker were highly entertained.