March 26 in Motorsports History: Papis clinches first victory in Miami

Leave a comment

Twenty years ago today, a future IndyCar race steward won his first major open-wheel race in South Florida.

In his 60th start in CART competition, Max Papis won the Marlboro Grand Prix at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 26, 2000.

The Rahal Letterman Racing driver started the 150-lap event from 13thand slowly moved through the field as the race progressed. On the final restart on Lap 112, Papis was in second behind leader Paul Tracy.

Max Papis celebrates after winning the 2000 CART season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Roberto Schmit/AFP via Getty Images)

While Tracy had a clean restart and seemed en route to his 16th career victory as the laps wound down, the Canadian eventually hit lapped traffic, slowing his pace.

With 10 laps remaining, Papis caught Tracy and passed on the inside to take the lead on the frontstretch.  Third-place Roberto Moreno followed suit as the cars raced down the backstretch.

The top three maintained their positions through the checkered flag.

As he crossed the finish line, Papis punched the air with his fist. He was halfway out of his Reynard-Ford and raising his thumbs in the air as the car rolled down pit road towards victory lane.

“I knew we had a fantastic car,” Papis told ESPN in victory lane. “I just had to wait for the right opportunity. Today is the happiest day (for us).”

The afternoon was also a happy one for Papis’ sponsor, Miller Lite. That same day, Rusty Wallace won a 500-lap NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway in his Miller Lite Ford.

Papis went on to win twice more in CART (both the following season). He later also raced sports cars and NASCAR before being hired by IndyCar as a race steward in 2016.

Homestead-Miami Speedway switched their alliance to the rival Indy Racing Leauge the following season and continued to host open-wheel racing until 2010.

Also on this date:

1978: Danny Ongais won the Datsun Twin 200 at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, the first of five victories for the Hawaiian driver in ’78.

1989: Nigel Mansell won the final Grand Prix of Brazil at the Jacarepaguá Circuit. The race moved to Interlagos the next season.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter

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

Leave a comment

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