March 24 in Motorsports History: Hornish edges Lazier in thriller at Fontana

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Any time Indy cars race on a superspeedway, fans should expect a lot of lead changes and an exciting finish.

The 2002 IRL race at California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway) delivered just that.

While California had established itself as a regular stop on the CART and NASCAR circuits since 1997, the IRL was a new attraction at the facility in 2002.

Sam Hornish Jr. celebrates after winning the 2002 Yamaha 400 at California Speedway. Photo: INDYCAR

The crowd for the race was nothing to write home about, as only 20,000 spectators were in attendance at the 91,000 seat facility. But those who did show up likely did not regret their decision.

The Yamaha Indy 400 featured 39 lead changes between eight drivers, with the race coming down to a side-by-side battle for the win by Sam Hornish Jr, and Jaques Lazier in the final laps.

Lazier and Eddie Cheever Jr. were battling out for the lead in the remaining laps when Cheever’s engine blew on Lap 191. Hornish, who was sitting in the third position at the time, then moved up to second and began using the draft to catch up to Lazier.

With five laps remaining, Hornish was within striking distance of Lazier. With two laps remaining, both drivers were side by side.

Hornish then passed Lazier on the frontstretch to take the lead, but Lazier quickly regained control, passing Hornish on the inside as both drivers raced out of Turn 2.

Tucking in behind Lazier down the backstrech, Hornish went high going into Turn 3 and held a slight advantage over Lazier exiting Turn 4.  The cars then raced side by side to the finish line, but Hornish was able to narrowly hold on to win by 0.028 seconds.

“That was a lot of fun all the way down to the end,” Hornish told ESPN in victory lane. “With five laps to go, it didn’t matter who was going to win it. It was going to be a great race.”

At the time, the finish was the second-closest in IndyCar history. Later in the 2002 season, Hornish would win in the current closest finish in IndyCar history, defeating Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds to win at Chicagoland Speedway.

California Speedway continued to host the IRL through the 2005 season, while CART held its last race at the facility in November 2002 ( a CART race was originally scheduled for the 2003 season but eventually was canceled because of wildfires in the nearby San Bernadino Mountains). The reunified IndyCar Series eventually made a four-year return to the facility from 2012-15.

Also on this date:

1960: Scott Pruett was born on this date in Roseville, California. Pruett is tied with Bill Abuerlen as the winningest driver in IMSA history, with 60 victories.

1991: Ayrton Senna finally wins the Grand Prix of Brazil, his home race. Senna went on to win his third and final Formula One World Championship later that season.

2019: Colton Herta became the youngest winner in IndyCar history by taking the checkered flag in the inaugural IndyCar Classic at Circuit of Americas. Herta was 18 years, 11 months, and 25 days old.

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994