Indy 500 (top), US 500 (bottom). Photos: Getty Images Archives

The divided 500: the 1996 Indy and U.S. 500s, 20 years later

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INDIANAPOLIS – As the Indianapolis 500 prepares for its 100th running on Sunday, it’s a relief that North American open-wheel racing is merely under one series – as the Verizon IndyCar Series – rather than two.

Some 20 years ago today, that wasn’t guaranteed to happen.

That day began with two North American open-wheel series, rather than one, racing two separate 500-mile race distances on the same day, with separate introductions from the commentators tasked with calling each respective race.

The new Indy Racing League – the brainchild of Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – prepared to race the 80th Indianapolis 500 with the usual field of 33 cars, except with an unheralded field, only one past winner, and 17 rookies.

Meanwhile at Michigan International Speedway, the PPG IndyCar World Series – or CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) – prepared to stage its first ever U.S. 500 with its “name” teams, drivers and manufacturers, and a field of 27 cars.

At Indianapolis, Paul Page wrapped his two-minute “Delta Force” introduction with these words ahead of the 80th Indianapolis 500:

“Today’s winner may be unfamiliar to you now, but tomorrow, his name will be in headlines in every newspaper in America. Like others before him, he will drink cold milk from a bottle in victory lane. His likeness will go on the famous Borg-Warner Trophy, and he will join Harroun, Foyt, Mears, the Unsers, and Mario Andretti as a champion of the Indianapolis 500.”

In Brooklyn, Mich., several hours to the north, Bob Varsha summed up what was ahead in one simple phrase ahead of the first U.S. 500:

“A complicated story can be distilled to one simple fact: for the first time ever, the stars of IndyCar are not racing at Indianapolis on the last weekend in May. They are here, in Michigan, preparing to take on the challenge of 500 miles.”

And so May 26, 1996, began 20 years ago today with 60 drivers and teams – rather than 33 – preparing for separate 500-mile races and journeys into history.

These are some of their stories.

**

The drama of May 26, 1996 actually began two years earlier. The goals and desires of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, led by young track president Tony George, began to divide versus those of CART in mid-1994.

By January 1996, the Indy Racing League – an all-oval, primarily American driver racing series using old CART machinery – was born at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.

In the Daily Trackside Report from the 1996 Indianapolis 500, George had this to say about the pending month of May:

“Certainly, the sport itself is in transition. There are a lot of new names. There are a lot of new names in CART. There’s been a very warm reception in this community for the drivers who are here. I feel very strongly that this is a unique year, an unusual year in all respects.”

The U.S. 500 field.. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/All
The U.S. 500 field of 1996. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport

Meanwhile, miles away in Michigan, the CART field didn’t really want to be there. But the fact of the matter was they were after the political minefield led itself to that situation.

The IRL had reserved a “25/8 rule” whereby the top 25 in entrant points were locked into the Indianapolis 500 field provided they met a minimum qualifying speed, leaving only eight “at-large” spots.

CART teams could have played their hand and entered the first two IRL races to get into that top-25 but opted not to. Instead, most teams had sold their old equipment to the IRL teams so they’d have their own cars for racing. The IRL introduced its own chassis/engine formula separate from CART’s a year later.

“It was terrible. Unfortunately, from a driver standpoint, you have to do what your team owner tells you to do,” said Scott Pruett, who drove for U.E. “Pat” Patrick – one of CART’s initial founders.

“There was so much arrogance and misunderstanding; I don’t know if you call it personal indulging or hard-headedness. But as we all saw, looking back that was beginning of a really long tough stretch for IndyCar.”

“There was a lot of anger on the part of the team owners towards, to be blunt, Tony (George) and the concept of the IRL and 25/8 thing,” added Bobby Rahal, CART’s lone co-owner and driver at the time.

“It was consistent – maybe the only guy that didn’t feel strongly about it was (A.J.) Foyt – but for Roger (Penske), everyone else, it was like an act of war.”

**

Brayton took pole. Photo: IMS Archives
Brayton took pole. Photo: IMS Archives

In Indy qualifying, Arie Luyendyk and Scott Brayton were battling for the pole position. A year prior, both were teammates at Team Menard. In qualifying that year, they were competitors – Brayton in a Lola-Menard (the engine known formerly as Buick) and Luyendyk in a Reynard-Ford.

Larry Curry was the brains and technical wizard behind the Menard team at the time. They pulled a stunner to withdraw an already qualified car – Brayton’s then-No. 2 car – and qualify a second car, the No. 32, to snatch the pole away.

It worked, and Brayton had his second pole in as many years. Luyendyk’s time, which was good enough for second, was later disallowed when his car was found to be seven pounds underweight. “The way I see it, it was an oversight,” Luyendyk said in that day’s Daily Trackside Report.

Curry, who’s still present in 2016 as team manager and technical director with Lazier/Burns Racing (more on that in a bit), reflected on that day in a recent release out this week.

“I would probably say (my favorite memory) was in qualifying in 1996 when I was running Scott Brayton and Tony Stewart,” he said. “Scotty went out in qualifying and he was fourth or fifth, and he was very disappointed. What he didn’t know was I qualified him in his backup car.

“I needed Arie (Luyendyk) to post a time, because I thought he was our biggest competition that day. But when he qualified, he didn’t run as fast as I thought he would.

“I had changed our car numbers around. I told Scotty that this car in line is faster than the car he ran. But I also told him that withdrawing the first car was risky, because back then the rules were that the car was done if I withdrew it.

“I had fans yelling at me, criticizing me for taking a car that had just qualified fourth out of the race.

“Scotty went out, and Tom Carnegie was still alive and he came out with that ‘It’s a new track record!’ and we went on to win the pole.

“With the crazy dynamics of it, when Scotty went out we thought we were bumping Arie for the pole, but his car failed tech so we were really bumping our teammate, Tony Stewart, off the pole.

“It was more of a gamble than it is today. Back then, you had to live with the choices you made. If it was wrong, you were out. It was a very exciting time, and it worked out.”

**

Las Vegas Luyendy. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport
Luyendyk in Las Vegas, 1996. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport

Luyendyk was the only previous winner in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 field. And the fact he wasn’t still at Menard, instead driving for Treadway Racing, was a fascinating development in and of itself.

The Byrd Brothers, David and Jonathan II, had their father’s company adorning the sidepods of the Treadway Racing No. 5 Reynard-Ford along with Bryant Heating & Cooling. The Byrds are present on Sunday supporting the No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda for Bryan Clauson.

Yet Luyendyk wasn’t even the team’s first choice to drive. The two drivers initially mentioned for the ride got passed up.

“So our dad put a driver in front of them and said this is the guy he wants to hire. They were like, ‘He’s a rookie. We don’t want to be with a rookie, we want a guy with more of a name and more experience’ – so they passed on Tony Stewart,” said David Byrd. “My dad said this is a different kind of rookie, he’s going to be like the next Rich Vogler.

“They said they wanted to be the big dog and wanted somebody with more experience, so they said, what about this guy? So they said, ‘Well, he’s got more experience, but we want more of a name.’ So, they passed on Buddy Lazier.

“So then we asked, what about Arie Luyendyk? They were fine with Arie, an Indy 500 champion, he had the hair and a name, so that gave a great boost to our relationship with Bryant.”

**

The Brayton garage. Photo: IMS Archives
The Brayton garage. Photo: IMS Archives

On May 17, the complexion of an already abnormal and stressful month changed.

Following a mechanical failure in Turn 2, Brayton lost control of a backup car – then the No. 23 car – and crashed heavily. Per the Daily Trackside Report, the accident occurred at 12:17 p.m. and Brayton, 37, of Coldwater, Mich., died at 12:50 p.m. The Speedway delayed the announcement until 4 p.m. so family could be informed.

“It ended up being the highest of highs and the lowest of lows all rolled into one because Scotty was killed a few days later, but that’s how exciting qualifying used to be,” Curry reflected in that release.

“Today, we lost a great friend, a great husband, a great father and a great competitor,” Brayton’s team owner, John Menard, said in the DTR. “Words just can’t describe how I feel right now. Scotty just loved this place. He loved running fast here, loved the competition. He was so proud of the fact he had the pole. He worked for that pole.

“It was a real gutsy thing he did Saturday (withdrawing a second-row car and going for the pole). He died doing what he loved. There are very, very heavy hearts at Team Menard right now. Scotty had a perfect race car, a perfect day and a perfect track and it reached out and bit him. It reminds you that this is a very serious business that we’re about.”

Stewart inherited the pole after Brayton’s fatal accident.

Luyendyk, with a new four-lap speed record of 236.985 mph, would only start in 20th place as a second-day qualifier.

Then, on race day, Lazier’s name suddenly became a story.

**

Eddie Cheever Jr., now an ABC IndyCar analyst, was one of four Team Menard drivers that year. Stewart and Mark Dismore were his planned teammates, with Danny Ongais then brought out of retirement to fill what had been Brayton’s car.

It’s almost as if Cheever’s thoughts mirrored the Byrds in terms of rating who went on to be stars from that year’s field.

“From my perspective, I was racing against Tony Stewart, who went on to become one of the greatest race car drivers of this generation,” Cheever said. “Arie Luyendyk was in it, too. He’s one of the most talented drivers (and the two had been teammates previously at Chip Ganassi Racing). There was a division, for sure, but solid ample representation.”

**

Stewart wound up starting first. Photo: IMS Archives
Stewart wound up starting first after Brayton’s accident. Photo: IMS Archives

Stewart was among the crop of 17 rookies – more than 50 percent of the field.

The others included Michel Jourdain Jr., Buzz Calkins, Davey Hamilton, Michele Alboreto, Mark Dismore, Richie Hearn, Johnny Unser, Jim Guthrie, Robbie Buhl, Paul Durant, Racin Gardner, Brad Murphey, Fermin Velez, Johnny O’Connell, Joe Gosek and Scott Harrington.

Jourdain. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Stockman/Allsport

Some of those were certainly lesser rated than others but to their credit, Calkins, Dismore, Hearn, Guthrie and Buhl all did go on to win races in the Indy Racing League. Jourdain, then 19 and the second youngest driver to ever start the race, (pictured right) won in Champ Car. Hamilton twice finished second in IRL points and has maintained an active presence in the sport to this day. Unser has enjoyed a successful second career as a race steward.

O’Connell is one of sports car racing’s biggest stars, as he’s spent nearly two decades winning races and championships with GM in its Corvette and Cadillac Racing programs.

Alboreto. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/Allsport

Alboreto (pictured right) and Velez were also sports car talents, and Alboreto an ex-Formula 1 ace for Ferrari. Both lost their lives too soon (2001 and 2003, respectively).

Some of the rookies had these quotes after they qualified, per the Daily Trackside Report:

  • Jourdain: “It’s a dream come true. I wanted to have a safe car for qualifying. I got some good advice from my uncle (Bernard Jourdain, 1989 co-Rookie of the Year).”
  • Hamilton: “After last year, there was a lot of pressure on me. It has been a dream of mine to get in the race, and getting in is a load off my shoulders.”
  • Dismore: “Now, I finally get a shot. I’m feeling sincerity from the bottom of my heart. It’s been bottled up for a long time. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be here. If I hadn’t gotten this opportunity I’d feel like an incomplete person.
  • Unser: “Me being the only Unser here I thought would never happen. Al Sr. and Al Jr. have been with me since Day 1. We came here and woke Uncle Al up. They told me what to expect, where to be and when to be there. They’re able to understand the inside of me. They’ve been a tremendous help.”
  • Guthrie: “I’ve run less than 150 laps all month long and the fastest laps of those 150 were during qualifying. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Because of Tony George and the IRL, guys like me have a chance to run here.
  • Gosek (a second weekend qualifier and Super Modified legend): “It hasn’t sunk in yet. That’s for sure. I didn’t look at the speedometer, that’s for sure. I never do that at home in the Super Modifieds, so I didn’t want to start it here. I know that I looked down at one point and saw a 22…something. There’s a lot going on out there and you have to concentrate.”

**

St. James in 1994. Photo: IMS Archives
St. James in 1994. Photo: IMS Archives

Lyn St. James was the only woman in the field but she understood the perception of first-year drivers, especially ones not well-known, making their first ’500 start. In 1996, she was about to embark on her fifth.

“There were still quality drivers, they just weren’t ‘name’ drivers,” she said.

“I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the Indy 500, but I’m also a believer in opportunities presenting themselves. Someone benefits from those. There’s a number of drivers who hadn’t been in an Indy 500 and would never have been in an Indy 500 otherwise, and deserved it from a skill standpoint.”

St. James is one of racing’s biggest ambassadors, not just for female drivers and other crew members, but having been a very successful driver in her own right.

She was another one of the bigger ‘names’ still at Indy, having walked off with the rookie-of-the-year title in her first attempt in 1992. But her road to Indianapolis in 1996 was fraught with her own struggles just to make it for her fifth ‘500 start.

Speedway veteran Dick Simon selling his team to eccentric businessman Andy Evans – and the creation of Team Scandia – led to St. James needing to find another ride for May.

Evans, meanwhile, set a record with seven cars in the 1996 field (Eliseo Salazar, Alessandro Zampedri, Michel Jourdain Jr., Michele Alboreto, Fermin Velez, Joe Gosek and Racin Gardner).

“Well, it was painful,” she said. “To backtrack a bit, I’d finished eighth at Disney the first race of the season. There was a crazy rule in place, that the champion would be crowned after three races. I came off Disney with eighth place, thinking, ‘Well, it’s a long shot, but I usually run well at Indy.’ I’d come off qualifying outside of the second row in 1994. So, ‘Man, if I had a good Phoenix, then Indy, I could be in contention.

“For me personally, I’d had a falling out with Andy Evans. It was a dramatic month for me.”

Her usual number 90 – tied to longtime partner JC Penney – also went away. She had a number that was half that, 45, for 1996.

“Toby O’Connor from San Antonio had been on my crew for previous years, stepped up and became a sponsor and owner. It was all changes with no continuity. It wasn’t the same team. It was a different car number, owner and sponsor. And it was the first Indy 500 after the split.

“There was all this scuttlebutt, rumors and anger. It was a very frustrating and disappointing month of May. But come race day, I had to let go of it all and concentrate.”

**

Commentary wise, Varsha and Scott Goodyear were at Michigan, and both were in unfamiliar positions.

Varsha was ESPN’s lead announcer for F1 at the time and Goodyear was about to embark on his first ever race commentary, and not by choice. He’d been injured in an accident at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil earlier in the year and wouldn’t be racing at either Indianapolis or Michigan.

Varsha explained the delicate balance they needed to strike at Michigan given the awkward situation.

“On that day, we had to be so careful about how we handled the opening,” he said. “We didn’t want to take a political position. We had to make it clear that the established heroes, the familiar faces were there, and we tried to cast this legitimacy into the open as, ‘You’re still seeing them, just not at Indy.’

Goodyear was a first-time commentator, and he said Varsha made it all the easier. The nerves didn’t show.

“When I got there with Varsha, it was amazing. He was so well organized and he said, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’” Goodyear said.

With IndyCar regulars Gary Gerould, Jack Arute and Dr. Jerry Punch in Indianapolis, there was an abnormal pit lane crew on site in Michigan. Jon Beekhuis was the lone regular there alongside Marty Reid and James Allen, who both went onto play-by-play roles in the future in IndyCar and F1, respectively. Keep that in mind for later.

**

There wasn’t just a series war in both places. There was also a tire war.

It seems tough to recall now, but in 1996 Firestone was only in its second year back racing and nearly won upon its return to Indianapolis in 1995 – ironically, with Goodyear driving.

“I would have loved to have seen Scott Goodyear win! We would have dealt with it, I’m sure,” recalls Dale Harrigle, who’s now chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports and manager of race tire development.

Firestone was battling Goodyear, the tire, for glory at both locations. Memorial Day 1996 would set the scene for Firestone’s eventual domination of North American open-wheel racing for the next 20 years. Harrigle was in Indy at the time in 1996, and oversaw the program.

“Back then we had tire competition, and Goodyear was working really hard to beat us,” he said. “The first year of the IRL, they had the mature car from previous season. But we tested quite a bit to get ready for the ’96 Indy 500. We were very good in ’95, but we had no idea what Goodyear was going to do, so we worked harder to be better in ’96.

“We’re talking about 20 years ago, but we had a significantly larger group. We had people dedicated to CART. We had people dedicated to the IRL. We had track support at both locations. Running was open and we were working hard to manage both. I just remember there was a lot of work and travel to manage both and develop tires appropriately for both series.”

**

1The front row in happier times
The U.S. 500 front row in happier times, before the race. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport

The starts were meant to take place at roughly the same time, with Indianapolis going off first and Michigan going off later.

The Indianapolis start went fine, albeit down one car with Johnny Unser unable to start the race due to a gearbox issue.

Michigan went off much later – and not by choice.

Contact between Adrian Fernandez and Jimmy Vasser shot Vasser, the inaugural U.S. 500 pole sitter, up the track into third-place starter Bryan Herta, which set off a near dozen-car pileup before the field ever took the green flag.

It was an embarrassment that CART – and its new race – simply didn’t need.

Vasser and Herta related their views of the start.

“Fernandez hit me in the right rear. He hit me in the right rear and it shot me across,” Vasser said.

“If you look at the pictures, he’s really crowding me, but he’s got all the distance to Bryan. He was out of position. And man, he’s supposed to be watching my tire. I might move up a bit coming to the start.

“But that was just the s—s.”

Added Herta: “It was a shame because of the importance of the race, and with everything that was at stake. It was Adrian, Jimmy and I in the front row. I don’t even remember exactly. Someone touched someone, or someone touched me. And next thing you know we were all crashing.”

“We all looked like a bunch of idiots because we crashed,” summarized Rahal, Herta’s team co-owner and teammate.

**

Pace laps in 1996 Indy 500. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Stockman /Allsport
Pace laps at 1996 Indy 500. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Stockman /Allsport

There’s no way to prove it, but there could well have been laughs coming from Indianapolis because the lesser heralded field of 33 at that 500 managed to complete its start with no issues.

Scott Sharp was racing for A.J. Foyt, arguably the biggest name still at Indy, even though Foyt wasn’t driving. Foyt fielded three cars – for Sharp, then-rookie Davey Hamilton and Brazilian Marco Greco.

Sharp was trying to run down the leaders at Indianapolis, but Foyt couldn’t help but keep half an eye on Michigan.

“I remember, I was with Foyt, and he was on the radio with me,” Sharp said. “He was watching a handheld TV in Michigan.

“He’s like, ‘Son, you won’t believe what these guys just did!’ I’m like, ‘A.J., let’s focus on the car here.’”

**

At Michigan, the TV coverage was about to enter ‘time fill mode’.

“Danny (Sullivan) tells me when he and Paul and company were in Indy, they happened to have a TV tuned into our broadcast, which may tell you the level of competition,” Varsha said.

“They had a monitor tuned into our broadcast. So with the crash at the start, Danny almost shouted on the air, ‘Oh, there’s a crash!’ That would have been funny.”

Jokes aside, Varsha now had to play traffic director to ensure the Michigan coverage would continue uninterrupted without a race as the scramble to prep backup cars commenced.

“It was interesting to see James Allen on the Indy crew,” Varsha said. “We brought in James, who was my pit guy in F1 back in the day. He went running for interviews, but he wasn’t terribly familiar with that grid. He got Gil de Ferran and was grabbing all the Europeans from his F1 days. It was different with Jon, Marty Reid and James Allen, but that was cool to watch.”

Goodyear’s car was present that race with Swedish driver Fredrik Ekblom standing in in Derrick Walker’s second car. Alas, his first bit of in-race analysis – ever – would be needing to sum up how the heck this all happened.

“When I pulled up the compilation of all the crashes, it showed the beginning of the 500 and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that,’” Goodyear said.

“I was still waiting to see where I came in for that and then explained what happened. ‘Now this is live, right?’ Sheets are going everywhere.

“So for me, it’s the first time in the booth, and then we had this long fill, which was cool, just chatting and talking. And Varsha was so good, he made it easy.”

**

Stewart and Groff. Photo: IMS Archives
Stewart and Groff. Photo: Getty Images Archives

While Michigan was filling time, Indianapolis was in the midst of coming to its climax.

Stewart, the polesitter, went out on Lap 82 with engine failure related to the pop-off valve.

Even then, “Smoke” minced no words.

A then-24-year-old Stewart told the ABC broadcast: “It’s one of USAC’s junk pop off valves. At least next year in the IRL when we go to normally aspirated motors, we don’t have to worry about that.”

Luyendyk was out of the equation then by Lap 149 with accident damage. He’d started 20th, never led, and ended 16th – hardly the consequential result he or the team desired.

“He really was not concerned that he was going to make it to the front. So when he dropped out, it was disappointing because we thought we lost our best shot to win the Indianapolis 500,” said David Byrd.

None of the other retirements to that point were really big names.

The race settled into a battle featuring four drivers – Lazier, Davy Jones, Alessandro Zampedri and Eliseo Salazar.

Once Lazier got Jones on Lap 192, it was over. The dream story for the driver who’d suffered a major back injury at Phoenix was written, and the IRL had its first Indianapolis 500 champion in the 80th running of the race.

Firestone also had its first win at Indianapolis since 1971, when Al Unser won. Said Harrigle: “It was huge for the company and the program. We had executives from Japan that were at Indianapolis. They were thrilled. It was definitely a watershed moment for the program.”

While Michigan’s big crash happened on the start, Indy’s happened on the final lap, final corner. A three-car accident between Zampedri, Salazar and Roberto Guerrero took place coming off Turn 4. Salazar’s car slid underneath an airborne Zampedri, and the Chilean driver was lucky to avoid a tire hitting him in the helmet in the process.

There was so much attrition, though, that Zampedri, Guerrero and Salazar finished fourth, fifth and sixth behind the top three of Lazier, Jones and Hearn. In 13th, Jourdain was the last of only nine cars that finished the race.

**

Start at Michigan. Mandatory Credit: Darrell Ingham/Allsport
Start at Michigan. Mandatory Credit: Darrell Ingham/Allsport

Michigan’s restart nearly an hour later saw the race restart with all bar Fernandez in the 27-car field, most in backups.

Vasser leapt to a big lead at the start, but would later lose a lap as his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew sought to make his backup No. 12 Reynard-Honda as good as his now junked primary car.

“Thank God for me, the rules allowed us to bring out a backup car. We went a lap down,” he said.

“(Alex) Zanardi was good but he blew up. We had to work on my car all day because it was my backup. It wasn’t ready to go. I went a lap down tinkering with it.”

Vasser won. Herta was running well before late-race engine failure. Rahal crashed at about the halfway mark. Pruett’s engine blew up early after the race restart.

“We got backup cars out and lined up and raced again. It wasn’t ideal… but in the end, we still put on the race we needed to put on,” Herta said.

Added Rahal: “It was odd being in Michigan. It was cold. It wasn’t a nice weekend. To their credit everyone rolled out the spares and we had a nice race despite the anger, and what have you. At the time, they posed the question, ‘Would we’d all rather be at Indy?’ Yes, but not under those circumstances.”

The race featured an abnormal top-five with Vasser beating PacWest Racing’s Mauricio Gugelmin, Payton/Coyne Racing’s Roberto Moreno in what was the first ever podium finish for Dale Coyne’s team after more than a decade of trying, Tasman Motorsports’ Andre Ribeiro and Gugelmin’s teammate Mark Blundell.

**

Phto:Gety Images Arcives
Vasser and team at Michigan. Photo: Getty Images

Vasser, now 50, is a team co-owner of KVSH Racing with Kevin Kalkhoven and James “Sulli” Sullivan, having moved into the team ownership realm in 2004 a year after KV Racing – formerly PacWest – began in 2003. His last race start came at the final Champ Car race at Long Beach in 2008.

In reflecting on 1996, a year he also won what was Ganassi’s first championship of 11 they’ve achieved in the 20 years since, he said it was a tough situation but one they fought through.

“A lot of us didn’t really believe it was gonna happen. We believed we’d still be there (at Indianapolis) somehow,” he said. “We were kind of stunned we ended up in Michigan, but we knew in late ‘95 there wouldn’t be any reconciliation.

“But we went and did what we had to do. We were racing for our teams. Certainly it wasn’t the same. CART did what they could to make it a big deal.

“The fans in the know, knew where the real race was. It was a strange ordeal.”

**

Lazier in 1996. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT
Lazier in 1996. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT

Lazier, now 48, starts his 19th Indianapolis 500 from 32nd place in the No. 4 Lazier/Burns Racing Chevrolet, back for another crack at the race he won 20 years ago. Two years ago, he told me how fascinating the culture shift has been since his rookie orientation bow as a then-21-year-old rookie in 1989.

“I’d had an impressive resume coming up, and team owners were saying: ‘It looks like you’ve done a great job, but these are half-million dollar race cars, and you’re a teenager,’” Lazier said then. “So they wanted mature drivers with a lot of experience.

“Of course now I’m 40-something, with a lot of experience… and they want the young guys. Guess I’m always the opposite, but I still love this sport.”

Now, 20 years later, Lazier looks back on the 1996 win with fond memories – but more reflective on the races he missed out on winning.

But he knew going into 1996 that for the first time, he’d have a shot to win.

“To be honest my mindset changed at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We did a tire test first at Orlando. We were lightning fast. And then we did another tire test at Phoenix. At the time, it was the fastest anyone had gone on a one-mile oval. We were testing with CART teams. A number of teams were out there.

“When I saw what I was capable of doing at that test, we were by far the quickest. It was one of those moments in time. I felt like I could win anytime any place. Our Reynard (it was a 1995) on those Firestone tires, on the level of development, with my engineer, team and driving style, everything nicely fit together.”

Lazier won the race with a broken back. Between crutches, a cane and a back brace, it was all Lazier could do to make it through the month despite the pain. But the adrenaline surpassed the agony that month.

“Obviously it was a devastating injury and accident. But the first thing for me was just to get comfortable in the car,” Lazier explained. “I was in an enormous amount of pain for two-three weeks. But they had a medical jet where I could leave St. Anthony’s (hospital) in Phoenix and fly back to my hometown of Vail, Col., and be under the care of surgeons in Vail, near the ski industry. We did all kinds of crazy things to heal faster.

“By the time you get to Indianapolis, it was basically that I didn’t know if I would be back in a car that could win. But damn, I was gonna make the most of what I have.

“Literally when we get there at the beginning of the month I had the crutch and a back brace. The bones were healed enough. We all thought it would be safe. I had to make sure I could do compression tests. Don’t put anyone at risk. But it was healing through the month. As practice went on it got better and better. I didn’t need the cane and rarely used the back brace.

“It’s a long race. Three hours and change. Pace ourselves and stay in the hunt. You’re spending so much time adjusting to the track conditions, that you don’t have much time to think about anything else.

“But by the end of the race, my back was definitely in a pretty painful state.”

**

Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport
Calkins, above, was one of two IRL co-champions in 1996. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/ALLSPORT

There wasn’t just a race to decide in Indianapolis. Because of the peculiarities of the inaugural Indy Racing League championship, the debut three-race season actually ended with the Indianapolis 500.

“Buzz Calkins and Scott Sharp were in contention for the championship,” Harrigle said. “Buzz won Disney World, where he beat Tony Stewart. Shortly after he won Menards switched to Firestone, which was a big thing for us.

“Then he fell out with a failed right rear wheel bearing. One more lap and he would have been the sole IRL champion! Because of the way it went down, Buzz and Scott Sharp were considered co-champions. Buzz, with one more lap, would have been champion.”

Neither Calkins nor Sharp were happy about the tie.

“I think they should give it to the guy who won a race. In every other series, they give it to the guy who won a race,” Calkins said, via the Daily Trackside Report.

Sharp didn’t know, nor care, that he was even in the running.

“It ended up happening. I blew a tire out of 4. That sort of ended our day. It was disappointing. But I think we won or co-won the title? We weren’t focusing on that at all,” he said.

**

While the 1996 U.S. 500 was a memorable one-off event for CART and its teams, its status directly against Indianapolis was never going to work long-term.

In 1997, CART moved its Memorial Day weekend race to the new Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis, and ran it on the Saturday to avoid a head-to-head conflict for the next three years.

In 2000, CART raced at Nazareth on the Saturday after a snow delay, where Gil de Ferran won the 100th open-wheel race for Roger Penske. The same year, Juan Pablo Montoya and Vasser headlined Ganassi’s efforts as the first CART team to return to the Indianapolis 500. Montoya promptly led 167 of 200 laps to blow away the field en route to victory.

A year later, with CART opening its own month of May, more CART teams went back to Indianapolis. Helio Castroneves won his first of three ‘500s in a Team Penske 1-2, as CART teams swept the top six positions.

Penske, then a full-season IRL entrant, beat CART’s Team Green in 2002 when Castroneves was a controversial victor against now NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy.

By 2003, Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Rahal had moved too. CART folded at the end of 2003 and came back revived as Champ Car a year later under a new ownership group, but was a shadow of its former self for its final four years before the two series came back together in 2008.

**

As the teams moved back to Indy, the prestige of Indy began to come back after a tough few years.

“I remember the CART guys being so confident in them holding the upper hand – people tuned in because of the drivers, teams on the CART side,” Varsha said.

“They’d prove that with this almost, ego-laden, hubris-laden counter promotion running it on Memorial Day weekend up against Indy 500, $1 million to win purse.

“As history tells us, they might have been right, but the lure of Indianapolis was just too much for the top teams. When they switched over, that was the death knell.”

The lost years when CART didn’t race at Indianapolis cost countless drivers a chance to win there. Michael Andretti never won, despite leading the most laps of drivers who hadn’t won at the track. Drivers like Alex Zanardi and the late Greg Moore never even competed.

“For me, I lost five good years of trying to win that race. I’m confident I could have got one of them to win it,” Andretti said.

“It’s left a sour taste in my mouth and always will, because I got cheated out of something. It’s not just me, but a lot of quality people. For open-wheel racing in general, it was bad times.”

“From a driver standpoint, if you drive IndyCars, you want to race the Indy 500,” Pruett said. “That’s the biggest race. For me personally, being so close to winning in ’95, and then never going back for my career, was tragic.”

Lazier won at Indy, and noted that for guys like him who’d never had a shot in good cars, 1996 provided one hell of an opportunity.

“Think about it. There were a number of us there that had been there before,” he said. “I’d been there and tried to get in a car that could win for six or seven years. Then I did.”

Foyt and Sharp. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport
Foyt and Sharp. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor/Allsport

Sharp, the 1996 IRL co-champion, said confusion dominated the proceedings.

“Everyone was torn, split and confused. You didn’t know what series represented what,” he said. “Then when Penske came over, Ganassi came over, and as people started to come over, then the momentum started to come back.”

Cheever, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion, said the sport moved on, but the damage of 1996 took its toll.

“I did not make the decision for the other drivers to be in Michigan, and as it played out, they all wound up coming back to Indianapolis anyway,” he said. “It’s very easy to use derogatory adjectives to describe the decision-making process, but we’re all long past that.

“It was a different year, certainly, and we were going through what you’d call a civil war. But in the end, the Indianapolis 500 won.”

Rahal probably summed it up best.

“Let’s face it: Michigan was a good race with a good crowd, but it wasn’t Indy.

“Thankfully, that didn’t last.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

Honda Photo
Honda Photo
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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500