When Mark Blundell crossed the finish line 0.027 of a second ahead of Gil de Ferran at Portland International Raceway in 1997, he wasn’t sure what had happened.
“I didn’t know that I’d won the race,” Blundell said. “It was quite a thrilling thing to understand it. I looked up at the leaderboard and saw our number on top. I didn’t know we’d won it.”
Blundell’s recollection is just one of many from Indy car racers who competed at the iconic 1.967-mile, 12-turn road course between 1984 and 2007. Today, the Verizon IndyCar Series announced that PIR will return for the first time since when it joins the 2018 schedule on Sept. 2, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.
News of Portland’s return met Blundell’s approval, along with memories of 1997 and 80 other CART races in which he competed.
“It’s a great part of the USA,” Blundell said. “There’s a huge amount of passion and enthusiasm for auto racing. Any driver will be happy after the first lap. There will be a smile on their face. They’ll be happy. It’s a great circuit.”
In all, CART and Champ Car raced at PIR 24 times. Among the winners were Michael Andretti (1990, 1991 and 1992), Mario Andretti (1985 and 1986), Al Unser Jr. (1984, 1994 and 1995) and Sebastien Bourdais (2004 and 2007).
In the 1997 race, Blundell chased de Ferran on a final-lap restart on a drying track, eventually pulling his No. 18 PacWest Mercedes-powered Reynard alongside de Ferran’s Honda/Reynard as the two approached the finish line in a drag race down the front straight. As Raul Boesel approached from behind in his Ford/Reynard, Blundell reached the finish line with the nose of his car just past de Ferran’s (shown in the photo above).
The margin between Blundell and de Ferran remains the closest in Indy car history on a road or street course. The difference between Blundell, de Ferran and Boesel – 0.055 of a second – is still the closest 1-2-3 finish on a road or street course.
The race began in wet conditions. Blundell was among the first to opt for Firestone’s dry-condition tires, allowing him to charge through the field. De Ferran opted to remain on Goodyear’s wet-condition tires to the bitter finish, helping Blundell get a better run coming off the final series of tight turns leading to the frontstretch.
“That race was quite special,” Blundell said. “The conditions were unique. The gamble on tires was one that was all about risk versus reward. We ran it and made the most of it. … The timing worked out just perfectly for us.”
When Blundell crossed the finish line in front, it not only earned his first Indy car victory but also the first for PacWest Racing. It came just two weeks after the ultimate heartbreak for the team when Blundell and teammate Mauricio Gugelmin each ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap at Belle Isle in Detroit, allowing Greg Moore to steal the victory.
The 1997 Portland finish is among several memorable races at the track. In fact, it eclipsed what was previously the closest road-course finish in Indy car history in what has become known as the Father’s Day gift of 1986.
That day, Michael Andretti dominated the race until encountering a fuel pick-up problem in the late going in his yellow and blue No. 18 Kraco Enterprises Cosworth/March. His father, Mario, had resigned himself to the fact he would finish second in the No. 5 Hanna Car Wash Cosworth/Lola for Newman/Haas Racing, until word came over his radio from the pits.
“I was running second in the latter part of the race, but he controlled the race,” Mario told ESPN. “He was pretty much dominating. Toward the end, there was no way I could catch him, so I settled protecting second place and figured I’d bring it home.
“About three or four laps from the end, I started getting word from my team manager. He said, ‘Hey, I think Michael’s having a little problem with some fuel pick-up.’”
Michael explained later that it wasn’t a matter of running out of fuel, but that the fuel pick-up unit couldn’t collect the final seven gallons in the tank. Knowing this, Michael slowed to conserve as much as possible in the closing laps. But Michael's car sputtered down the front straight and Mario edged him by 0.070 of a second.
“I actually had a lap lead over him,” Michael said. “I just had to back off the last 20 laps, to just try to make it to the end, and he beat me by about seven hundredths of a second or whatever.”
Michael admitted years later that he had forgotten it was Father’s Day until being reminded on the radio midway through the race.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I didn’t get him anything,’ so I figured why not a win?” he joked.
But back then, on June 15, 1986, all Michael could tell Mario – who had not won a race since the year before at Portland – was, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”
The most striking aspect of the Portland track layout is its flatness. Located near Interstate 5 and the Columbia River just a few miles north of downtown, the circuit features few noticeable changes in elevation and several demanding passing zones.
“There’s not any real undulation in the circuit, but it is a challenging circuit in its own right,” Blundell said. “It’s one that every driver will be more than happy with when they come to the end of completing a lap.”
After four years in Formula One, Blundell moved to CART in 1996. In five years, he had three victories, including the 1997 Portland race. Now CEO of MB Partners, Blundell represents drivers and golfers from his London-based headquarters.
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule features 17 races. The season opens March 11 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Watch the 1997 Portland race broadcast here: