A career unfulfilled

It’s said that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway picks her winner, and those upon whom she bestows her glory receive the accolades of the her majesty for decades to come.  But for those who never receive the gift, the aftermath can be daunting, depressing, and unfulfilling.

There have been countless debates argued and books written about the drivers who never quite made it to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing and whose faces are missing on the Borg-Warner Trophy.  Many drivers have seemed destined, certain perhaps, of one day ascending to the top of the mountain to taste the milk and see their face forever enshrined on the silver trophy.  Names like Andretti, Gurney, Ruby, Mays, Horn are usually among those most often mentioned.

One of the sadder cases of an unfulfilled career, however, came from a promising Colombian who came to the Speedway as a 25-year old rookie in 1984 but is now often most remembered by those who only tangentially follow in racing circles as the punchline of cruel joke.

Roberto Guerrero was only five years removed from the Jim Russell Racing School when he competed in his first Formula 1 event in 1982.  He never had much luck in the F1 world, spending his maiden campaign with Mo Nunn’s Ensign Team before they merged with Theodore Racing for 1983.  After a fruitless couple seasons, Guerrero moved to the United States to tackle the CART series with Bignotti-Carter Racing, the defending Indianapolis 500 winning team.

The pairing had decent results throughout the season, but the highlight was a runner-up finish at the 1984 Indianapolis 500, finishing a distant two laps behind Rick Mears after being partially involved in the Patrick Bedard accident, spinning his car in the second half of the race, and missing his pit box on one of his stops.  For his efforts, Guerrero would be named Co-Rookie of the Year with fellow hard-luck driver Michael Andretti.

Sans George Bignotti, Team Cotter returned in 1985 with more disappointing results for the season as a whole, but a strong third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 again highlighted their season.  Everyone remembers Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti fighting for the lead with Sullivan eventually spinning in front of Mario before claiming the victory.  Fewer people remember Guerrero’s run to third and being the only other car to finish on the lead lap.  Results still didn’t come easily for the team throughout the season, but glimmers were starting to show that they were making progress as Guerrero retired from the Michigan 500 while leading later that summer.

1986 was a turning point for Guerrero and Team Cotter with a pair of second-place finishes, including a race he started on pole and dominated and should have won at Tamiami Park before running out of fuel on the last lap.  Guerrero and Team Cotter eventually finished ninth in the season standings, but by the end of the year, as the saying goes, people knew they were there.  After a second and third in his first two Indianapolis 500 runs, Guerrero again finished in the top 5, this time coming home fourth after the epic three-man battle between Bobby Rahal, Kevin Cogan, and Rick Mears.

Guerrero finally broke through in 1987 and was on the precipice of a career defining season.  Team Cotter, originally formed by the legendary George Bignotti, was sold after the 1986 season to Vince Granatelli, son of the equally legendary Andy Granatelli.  After qualifying third at Phoenix, his car was declared illegal in post-qualifying inspection, and Roberto was forced to start last in the 22-car field.  It made no difference, though, as Guerrero sliced his way through the field to claim his first CART victory.  When the series rolled into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Guerrero was among a short list of favorites.

As one of the few teams that unraveled the mystery of the 1987 March chassis with the new Goodyear radial tires (a mystery that even Team Penske gave up on), Granatelli Racing and Guerrero had a bit of a leg up on the competition.  He qualified a strong fifth and established himself as “Best in Class” early on while Mario Andretti mostly ran away with the race.

As many of his most formidable competitors became victims of attrition, the race played out well for Guerrero.  For 129 laps, Guerrero ran strong, waiting for an opportunity for Andretti’s untested Chevrolet engine to falter and put Roberto in a position to claim victory.

On Lap 130, Guerrero’s luck, his career, and his life changed forever.

Coming through Turn 3, Guerrero was chasing the lapped car of Tony Bettenhausen when the right front wheel of Bettenhausen’s car came loose at full speed and bounded along the track.  Unable to avoid the tire and wheel, Guerrero hit the wheel squarely with the nose of his car, sending the tire skyward over the debris fence and into the grandstands at the north end of the track.  Sitting in the very top row of the old Grandstand K, 41-year old Lyle Kurtenbach didn’t see the tire coming at him in time to react and was struck in the head by the 18-pound wheel.  He was fatally injured by the impact, the last spectator to be so injured at IMS.  (A fantastic piece in the Indianapolis Star by Zak Keefer in 2018 tells the story and talks about how its impacts are still being felt 31 years later.)

Tragic in its own right (though the fatality was reported by neither the IMS Radio Network nor ABC Sports), the impact had major implications on the remainder of the race.  Immediately after the impact, Guerrero pitted to repair damage to the front of his car.  It was initially believed that the damage had been solely cosmetic.  The team scrambled to investigate the damage and found the only repairs necessary were on the front shock cover.  They famously “repaired” the damage by placing a new cover in place of the old one and wrapping the entire nose with several pieces of tape.

The fixes appeared to work and Guerrero returned to action at speed.  He was able to maintain second position behind Mario Andretti and ahead of Al Unser.  When the Andretti Curse struck again on lap 177, it appeared Guerrero was going to inherit the lead and cruise to a rather easy victory.  But he had one final pit stop to make before getting to the checkered flag.

Guerrero’s final stop came on lap 182.  At the time, he had a one-lap lead on Al Unser.  Upon completion of a flawless timed pit stop by the Granatelli crew, Guerrero went to pull away from his pit and stalled the engine.  The crew refired the engine immediately, but Guerrero again stalled the engine trying to get away.  Unfortunately, Guerrero rolled several pit stalls away, and the crew had to retrieve him and pull him back.  On the third attempt, Guerrero was finally able to keep the car fired and pulled away.  But the damage had been done.  Guerrero not only lost the lead to Unser, he was now a lap down with only 17 laps remaining.

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After his second attempt to exit the pits on lap 182 of the 1987 Indianapolis 500, Guerrero’s team had to retrieve his car from several pits stall away. (Image: IMS Photo)

Lapped traffic caused Unser to slow and allowed Guerrero to unlap himself.  Then a late yellow flag allowed Guerrero to catch back to the rear of the field, only six cars separating him from Unser.  With only four laps to go when the green flag flew, Guerrero tried furiously to catch Unser, but it wasn’t to be.  Guerrero went on to a crushing runner-up finish, his second in four tries to go with his third and fourth place finishes.

Unbeknownst at the time, the stall in the pit lane on the final stop was a direct result of the fatal incident earlier in the race.  The impact with the tire caused not only cosmetic damage to Guerrero’s day-glo car but had damaged the clutch master cylinder that sat directly below the shock cover.  Neither the crew nor Guerrero realized the cylinder had been damaged and that hydraulic fluid had been quickly leaking from the reservoir.  On his last stop, Guerrero had essentially no use of the clutch, hence why the car stalled as soon as the tires hit the ground.

It was a devastating defeat for Guerrero, who would put on a tough face and say the right words but who was assuredly dying inside.  On September 10, 1987, three and a half months after his Indianapolis disappointment, it went from bad to worse for Guerrero.

Following the Indianapolis 500, Guerrero’s year was on an upward trajectory.  He won four pole positions and scored his second victory of the year at Mid-Ohio.  Three days later, Guerrero was involved in a practice crash while testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  A rear suspension piece failed going into Turn 2, causing the crash.  Upon impact, the right front tire came off the car and hit Roberto in the helmet.  He was knocked unconscious and was in a coma for 17 days.

Under the watchful eye of Dr. Steve Olvey (whose book Rapid Response is highly recommended), Guerrero was given new medications to reduce the swelling in the brain and reduce his long-term risks.  The new treatment worked well for Guerrero, and though doctors predicted he could recover in time to race near the end of the 1988 CART season, Guerrero made remarkable progress and was ready to compete at the season opening event at Phoenix in March 1988.  In a near story-book ending, Guerrero finished second that day, and hopes were high that he would pick up right where he left off before his accident.  It wasn’t to be.

His first taste of disappointment at Indianapolis soon came.  Following finishes of second, third, fourth, and second to start his career, Guerrero was involved in a first-lap accident with Scott Brayton and, ironically, Tony Bettenhausen (whose car had lost the wheel that Guerrero hit at speed a year earlier) in the second turn of the race.  It was the beginning of what would eventually be nine finishes of 20th or worse over Guerrero’s final 11 Indianapolis 500s.

Futility reined upon Guerrero for the rest of 1988, and he parted ways with Granatelli after the season.  For the next couple years, Guerrero would be part of the underpowered Alfa-Romeo effort, first with Morales Motorsports and then the reincarnated Patrick Racing Team.  He sat out the Month of May 1989 before disappointing results in 1990 and 1991, including a vicious crash with Kevin Cogan in ’91 from which debris also knocked out the returning AJ Foyt.

Finally, in 1992, it appeared that perhaps the sun had risen again and better days were to finally shine upon Roberto Guerrero.  Late in 1991, Guerrero had signed with Kenny Bernstein’s King Motorsports, and in pre-season testing at Indianapolis, Guerrero and teammate Jim Crawford let it be known that King Motorsports was out to make a splash.

In March, Guerrero became the first driver to test at over 230 mph at the Speedway, followed closely by teammate Crawford.  When the gates officially opened in May, the duo continued their dominance and established themselves as almost shoe-ins for the pole position.  The misfortune fell on Crawford this time, as he encountered several engine failures late in the week and on qualifying weekend, leading to him a fast qualification run but as a second-day qualifier.  Thus he would start in Row 5.

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Guerrero would capture the Pole Position for the 1992 Indianapolis 500 by setting one- and four-lap qualifying records in Kenny Berstein’s King Motorsports Quaker State Lola/Buick. His qualifying time still stands as the sixth fastest in race history. (Photo: IMS Photo)

But the glory of opening weekend shone brightly upon Roberto Guerrero.  After a long rain delay, Guerrero finally took his gorgeous green #36 Quaker State Lola/Buick onto the track in the late afternoon.  Roberto would set three one-lap records, the final of which was his third lap at 232.618 mph, and a four-lap record of 232.498 mph to put himself on the pole position for the 1992 Indianapolis 500.  Major questions of reliability concerned Guerrero’s fast but fragile Buick V-6 engine, but for at least the next two weeks, Guerrero would bask in the glory of being the Indianapolis 500 pole winner.

Race Day dawned overcast, gloomy, and downright cold.  It would be a day of painful results for many, with Mario and Jeff Andretti suffering crippling leg and foot injuries, and 11 other drivers involved in crashes.  Michael Andretti dominated the race only to have his fuel pump fail after leading 160 of the race’s first 189 laps.  But for Guerrero, it was once again a day of cruelty that would see him end up as the unfortunate laughing stock of racing’s uneducated.

On the race’s second parade lap, Guerrero’s car suddenly lurched forward and snapped left as he exited Turn 2 and started north down the backstretch.  Guerrero spun 180º through the grass and impacted the inside wall with the right front then right rear wheel.  It was accident eerily similar to Tom Sneva’s 1986 parade lap crash where Sneva’s also-green car lit its turbocharger and suddenly snapped left into the wall exiting Turn 2.  After two weeks of accolades and answering questions of whether his Buick engine could survive 500 miles, Roberto’s race as the pole sitter was over a lap and a half before the green flag was even displayed.

Roberto’s career would continue for several more years, but he was never again to regain the form that he displayed in his early years.  His time with King Motorsport ended after the 1993 season, at which time Guerrero joined with Pagan Racing in CART and the early years of the IRL.  After being dropped by Pagan mid-season in 1998, Guerrero had a few one-off starts but never raced full time again.  After missing the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 for the second time in two years, Guerrero called it quits and retired from racing.

Guerrero was only the third pole sitter of the Indianapolis 500 to finish last, and a career that started with such promise was soon forgotten.  Though he had a career at the Speedway that produced two second place finishes, a third, and a fourth, finishes that would be well received by a large majority of the drivers who have ever driven in the 500, Guerrero continues to be remembered to this day for stalling in the pits in 1987 and crashing on the parade lap in 1992.  Largely unforgotten is the successful season that Roberto was compiling in 1987 before his IMS crash, a season that was good enough to finish fourth in the CART points despite missing the final three races of the year.

It’s difficult and unfortunate to think of how Roberto Guerrero’s life and career may have been different if not for a couple circumstances.  Had Roberto not been following Tony Bettenhausen at the exact distance and at the exact moment that the tire came off Betternhausen’s car, it is likely Guerrero would have cruised to an easy victory in the 1987 Indianapolis 500 once Mario Andretti broke down.

Though his 1992 pole-sitting blunder did not have the same tragic consequences, it no doubt led to more ridicule and a bigger let down for the then-33-year old Guerrero.  Given the lack of reliability of his Buick engine in 1992, it’s unlikely Guerrero would have seen much success in the race (though Al Unser did bring his Buick engine home third in that race, the first time the Buick engine had ever actually completed 500 miles in the race), but losing control and crashing before the race even started was a cruel trick of the racing gods.  Much like Bill Buckner being remembered to this day for letting a routine ground ball through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Guerrero is probably best remembered today for the gaffe that few people can really understand.

Roberto Guerrero, while driving, was always described as one of the most gentlemanly drivers on the circuit.  As such, it is even more cruel that his career of such promise was left mostly unfulfilled.  I don’t believe that anyone is “owed” an Indianapolis 500 win, but it’s hard to image any driver would have been more “deserving” of having his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

To this day, Roberto’s 1992 qualified speed of 232.498 mph is the sixth fastest speed in race history, eclipsed only by five drivers in 1996.  His career was one of promise and then heartbreak.  But having viewed Guerrero from a far for over 30 years, I never got the sense that he let himself be defined by his disappointments.  I’ve seen Roberto a number of times over the past ten years, and he has always maintained the calm, gentle, and grateful demeanor that defined his personality throughout his driving career.  I truly wish those fans today who know only of his stories from 1987 and 1992 looked beyond those two incidents and saw the career that was forever sidetracked by a terrible crash during testing.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as James Hinchcliffe said, can be a “cruel distress,” and she certainly took more than she gave to Roberto Guerrero.  But fans would be much better served to look at his career as a whole than simply judging him for two instances that were largely beyond his control.

2 thoughts on “A career unfulfilled

  1. Paul Davis

    Great article. I never knew about the damage to Roberto’s master cylinder in 1987. If Roberto wins, there are only TWO 4-time winners and what about 1986? Wasn’t Roberto passed on the final restart? If he holds on there, Bobby Rahal never wins. As AJ once said about winning the 500, “run fast, stay out of trouble and be lucky all day…”

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    1. I think you’re thinking of Kevin Cogan in 1986, who was passed by Rahal on the restart with two laps to go. The box score shows Guerrero finishing about 10 seconds behind Rahal, but he wasn’t really a factor for the win. His distance was closer due to the late yellow.

      Like

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