March 20 in Motorsports History: Michael Andretti makes a big return

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March 20, 1994 was an important date in American open-wheel racing.

The date marked the first race in CART’s 16th season as a sanctioning body. The Indy cars began their season on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Australia. 

It was an important weekend for the Andretti family. For Mario Andretti, Surfers was the first round of his 16-race ‘Arrivederci Tour’. After 29 seasons in open-wheel, the sports icon finally would hang up his helmet at the season’s end.

For Michael Andretti, the weekend marked a welcome return to familiar territory. Michael spent 1993 racing in Formula One for McLaren but was replaced by Mika Häkkinen with three races remaining after being plagued by a series of poor finishes.

Michael Andretti celebrates winning at Surfer’s Paradise on 20th March 1994. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

Andretti signed with Chip Ganassi Racing for the 1994 season and picked up where he left off in the season opener.

After the first two attempts to start the race were delayed because of weather and accidents, Andretti overtook race pole-sitter Nigel Mansell during the third attempt.

He went on to dominate, leading all 55 laps of the race, which was shortened by 10 laps due to darkness.

The victory was the first for Andretti in 17 months but was his second consecutive victory in CART competition as he had previously won the 1992 season finale at Laguna Seca.

Andretti’s victory was also the first for Ganassi and the Renyard as a chassis manufacturer.

“It’s great to be back. What can I say?” Andretti told ABC Sports following his victory. “I prayed hard for this, and it came true.”

Andretti won again in the 1994 CART season in July at Toronto. He finished fourth in the overall standings.

The second-generation driver returned to Newman/Haas Racing the following year and replaced his father in the team’s No. 6 Texaco-Havoline entry. 

Also on this date:

2005: Fernando Alonso won the Malaysian Grand Prix, one of seven victories in his first championship season.

2016: The No. 2 Tequila Patrón ESM team of Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek, Ed Brown, and Pipo Derani won the 64th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. Derani made the race-winning pass on Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Action Express entry in the final moments of the race. 

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994