In the spring of 2002, the Indy Racing League (now the IZOD IndyCar Series) played to an mostly empty house for its inaugural run at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. But for those who did choose to see what the IRL’s brand of then-all oval racing was about, they were treated to a tremendous show at the two-mile oval.
Eight drivers swapped the lead 39 times in the Yamaha Indy 400, which came down to a wheel-to-wheel battle on the final lap between Chevy-powered drivers Sam Hornish Jr. of Panther Racing (pictured) and Jaques Lazier of Team Menard.
Leading up to their duel, Eddie Cheever Jr. had been in the mix as well, constantly stalking Lazier on the high side while running in second. But on Lap 191 of 200, Cheever’s powerful Infiniti engine let go in Turn 2 and the stage was set for Hornish and Lazier to settle things.
Hornish used the draft to catch up to Lazier and with two laps remaining, the future Indianapolis 500 winner finally was able to get side-by-side with him. The two drivers stayed locked together until Hornish cleared Lazier on the frontstretch as the white flag came out.
Lazier battled back on the inside and re-took the lead coming out of Turn 2. But after tucking in behind Lazier down the backstretch, he popped to the high line going into Turn 3 and held a slight edge coming out of Turn 4 that would last all the way to the checkered flag.
At the stripe, Hornish won by .028 of a second after a remarkable display of precision from both himself and Lazier in the last couple of laps. When asked about having to fight Lazier at speeds close to 220 miles per hour, Hornish couldn’t help but grin.
“Everything just seems to slow down except for when they move toward you,” he told ESPN’s Jack Arute after the race. “Then it seems like it speeds up real fast.”
After Cheever’s near-miss, the Infiniti camp was left to console themselves with the third-place run turned in by French rookie Laurent Redon, who fought off the Team Penske duo of Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves for what would prove to be his best result in an IndyCar.