Mario, Michael and the Mirage 12: The Story of a Race not Run

One of the most bizarre races that Mario Andretti participated in was in a car that never ran

by | Feb 13, 2019 | Journals

John Lamm

Mario, Michael and the Mirage 12: The Story of a Race not Run

One of the most bizarre races that Mario Andretti participated in was in a car that never ran

by | Feb 13, 2019 | Journals

John Lamm

It was the most bizarre event of my career,” Mario Andretti told me. Given Andretti is a Formula 1 champ, Indy 500 and Daytona 500 winner and sprint car racer, it must have been quite an event.

Start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1982. A magnificent sight on the circuit’s front straightaway. The 55-car grid stretched along that broad avenue, back toward the Virage du Raccordement. We waited for the engines to be started. Phil Hill and I were there to cover Harley Cluxton’s Grand Touring Cars’ Mirage M12-Cosworth. Its drivers? Mario and Michael Andretti, who was just 19 years old. Cool story, going to be fun.

What’s this? Before the race has even started the Andrettis’ Mirage is being pushed away. Off the grid. It had been back in ninth qualifying spot, but now is slowing being shoved up past the Porsche 956s and off the track.

“It was an amazing experience,” Mario said. “I’m all belted in and ready to go. I’ve got my game face on and everything. With no warning whatsoever the Le Mans officials are screaming at me, ‘Out, out, out!’ I always said the Le Mans officials are the nastiest officials of any racing event on the planet.

“No one was there to explain to me what was happening. I said, ‘What did I do? Did I do something?’ I felt guilty myself…did I kill somebody on the way in or something?”

It was nothing that dramatic, of course, but a supposed last-minute tech inspection found an oil cooler aft of the transmission, an infraction apparently vile enough to earn a disqualification…of a car that had passed technical inspection.

Ah, the drama…

As you can tell by the numbering, the car that was DQ’ed was the twelfth in a line of Mirage race cars. The first was a modified Ford GT40 in 1967. Next came prototypes, with engines ranging from various Ford V-8s to turbocharged Renault V-6s. Main highlight was a Le Mans win with the GR-8 in 1975 thanks to Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx. Later that year, Gulf Oil sold the team to Harley Cluxton in Phoenix, where Mirage guru John Wyer and chief engineer John Horsman joined him. This new Mirage team finished second at Le Mans in 1976 with an M8-Ford and in 1977, campaigning a M9-Renault. They were Le Mans veterans…and yet.

Horsman designed the M12 for the new Group C regs: a sleek, aero ground-effects coupe complete with rear fender skirts. Based on an aluminum honeycomb monocoque created in England by Tiga, it had a double wishbone front suspension and a lower wishbone and upper rocker at the back.

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The bodywork, done in Kevlar and fiberglass, was fashioned for Le Mans’ long Mulsanne Straight, which then had no speed-slowing chicanes as it does today. The body shape was tested in Lockheed’s Marietta Georgia wind tunnel and at the Transportation Research Center’s high-speed track in Ohio. Cluxton recalls top-speed runs with Michael, the car twitching while running at high speed. Those in the pits were concerned they had a mechanical problem. Turned out the car was pumping road dust into the cockpit and Michael was sneezing. High-speed hay fever.

Mario admitted, “I had some doubts about the Cosworth engine.” Famed for its success in Formula 1 cars, the Ford-funded Cosworth DFV V-8 had one potential problem in long-distance races, vibrations from its flat-plane crankshaft. Yet it had been used in an earlier Mirage to win Le Mans in 1975 and in a Rondeau for 1980. For the M12, the engine was in DFL form with 3.9 liters and about 540 horsepower.

Two Mirage M12s were built, and chassis 002 was meant for Rick Mears and John Morton, but it wasn’t fully developed, not a runner. At Le Mans it was decided to hold to one entry, while holding the second car as a backup.

And so the Mirage M12 went to the famous grid for the most heralded endurance race of them all. Did it have a chance against the turbocharged Porsche 956s and the Saubers, Lancias and Rondeaus? We’ll never know.

Cluxton felt the Mirage proved competitive, noting the Andrettis were able to get to 214 mph on Mulsanne. Mario had done the setup with Wyer and Horsman. ABC Sports was ready with cameras in the car to make the story of Mario and Michael the subject of their U.S. broadcast. And then…

“We were blindsided,” Cluxton related. “The first I learned was when Phil said, ‘We have a problem.’ He and John took off. I asked, ‘What is this about?’ and was told, ‘We’re protesting getting disqualified.’ And I took off too.”

An impressive assemblage went to the office of l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) that runs the 24 Hour. Harley Cluxton, team owner. Phil Hill, who drove to three Le Mans wins. John Wyer, whose teams won Le Mans four times. Jabby Crombac, famed Swiss motor racing journalist. A great deal of horsepower.

Cluxton said they were arguing, “…with the ACO’s heavy, a known Francophile.” The ACO insisted, “We have to enforce!” By some accounts it took the officials some 25 minutes to find the rule they were enforcing. It turned out the regulation stated that there can be no liquids aft of the rear plane of the transmission. The Mirage coolers were fixed at about a 45-degree angle and only the rear tips of the coolers were back of that plane. With exactly the same configuration the car had passed tech inspection.

As the argument ran its course the team wasn’t allowed to work on the car. The ACO finally relented and said the Mirage technicians could do the necessary modifications, but it would have meant the car joining the race 90 minutes after its start. What was the point?

Horsman took blame for the problem, but back in Scottsdale, Wyer took responsibility. Cluxton related, “John said afterwards that it was all his bloody fault. He said, ‘I should have insisted that we had a token frog in the bloody car.’ That was his quote.”

Postscript: The whole episode cost Cluxton money because his sponsorship funds depended on the Mirage taking the start. ABC was also upset by the disqualification as it ruined plans for its broadcast. About a month after the race Cluxton got a call from Roone Arledge, ABC’s legendary sports head. He asked if Cluxton had heard from the French. When Cluxton said no, he was asked for his banking instructions.

Cluxton asked, “You have a plan, Roone?” And passed on the numbers.

 Arledge asked Cluxton what he thought was proper compensation. And then said, “I’ll be back to you, wish me luck.”

A few weeks later Arledge called again and asked if Cluxton had checked his bank account. He did and found a nice deposit from the French government…not the ACO. It so happened ABC was televising the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and Arledge had apparently spoken with the French representatives about airtime of its athletes…and, well…

Back in the U.S., Mirage M12 001 was raced a few more times, including a trio of 1983 IMSA races by Montura/Conte Racing. Its best finish was a seventh in the Miami Grand Prix. Mirage M12 002 has been in Europe in private collections.

For those of us at Le Mans in 1982, memories of the Mirage M12 came back at the 2018 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. Tom Dooley diving down the Corkscrew, the Mirage on to the Rainey Curve looking as sleek as ever. You could just imagine it whistling down the Mulsanne straight at over 200 mph. Memory of a bizarre event… it’s most famous race one that it didn’t run.

 

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