March 31 in Motorsports History: Jimmy Vasser wins Surfers Paradise

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Jimmy Vasser was the driver to beat in 1996.

Entering the season, Vasser was on the cusp of winning his first race in IndyCar competition, having finished second twice in 1995. The season also had change for Chip Ganassi Racing, which made the transition from Goodyear to Firestone tires and from Ford to Honda engines.

Those moves already had paid off in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as Vasser led 32 laps en route to his first career victory.

Jimmy Vasser celebrates his win with second-place Scott Pruett (R) and third-place Greg Moore (L). Photo: Getty Images

Two races later, on March 31, Vasser won again in an even more dominant fashion.

The Indy cars were in Australia for their annual event in Surfers Paradise, and in qualifying, Vasser set a new track record to clinch the first pole position of his career.

In the race itself, Vasser was hardly unchallenged. Despite five cautions, the Californian led 60 of 65 laps and won by a margin of 7.748 seconds over Scott Pruett.

“It feels great. I owe it all to the team,” Vasser told ABC Sports. “It was the most beautiful race car I’ve driven in my life. It didn’t do anything wrong. I was just hoping I wouldn’t, and fortunately, I didn’t and we won the race.”

By winning the race, Vasser also took the overall points lead from Pruett. Vasser stayed atop the standings for the remainder of the season and won twice more (Long Beach and Michigan) en route to winning the series championship.

Also on this date:

1968: Bobby Unser won the Stardust 150 at Stardust International Raceway near Las Vegas. Opened in 1965 and owned by the former casino of the same name, Stardust featured a 13-turn, 3-mile road course and a quarter-mile dragstrip. The 1968 race was the lone visit by USAC’s Champ Car Series, and the facility closed three years later.

2012: The No. 90 Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP of Antonio Garcia and Richard Westbrook won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park. The team won by a margin of 2.147 seconds over the No. 99 Bob Stallings Racing Corvette of Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney

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Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).