In 2008, the Champ Car World Series had just been absorbed into the Indy Racing League and the big story at Indianapolis was a ‘unified’ field for the first time since 1995. I wrote a story titled “The Lost Years” about the drivers who never got to compete in the Indianapolis 500 due to the CART/IRL split, along with CART stars who were forced to miss running Indy during the prime years of their careers. Here it is in lightly edited and updated form:
THE LOST YEARS
The big story at Indy this month (aside from Danica Patrick, of course) is the fact that all of the top drivers and teams in American open-wheel racing are competing together at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time since 1995. Much is being made about how the drivers and teams from the defunct Champ Car World Series are adapting to their new life in the IRL IndyCar Series.
The Speedway is an enthralling and intimidating place for newcomers, whether they are established veterans like Justin Wilson and Oriol Servia or rising aspirants like Will Power. Just about every rookie who competes at The Speedway (with the possible exception of Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000) is blown away by the place.
To paraphrase Rahal Letterman Racing’s new corporate motto, the Indy Racing League’s focus is definitely forward. But a conversation with Tony Kanaan got me thinking about the years that the open-wheel split kept him away from Indianapolis.
Between the start of the split in 1996 until 2000, when Target/Chip Ganassi Racing was the first team to break ranks to return to Indianapolis, most of the speedway racing specialists in the Champ Car series were denied the chance to compete at Indianapolis. The drivers like Jimmy Vasser, Greg Moore, Alex Zanardi and Mauricio Gugelmin who dominated CART’s high-speed ovals during those years could only look on and wonder what might have been as the likes of Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever swept to riches and glory by winning the Indy 500.
Vasser gained notoriety by quipping “Who needs milk?” after winning the 1996 CART U.S. 500, a race run at Michigan International Speedway in direct competition with the first IRL-based Indianapolis 500. Oddly enough, he was the first of the CART stars to return to Indy, in the year 2000 in conjunction with Montoya and the Ganassi team.
In those years, Vasser won one CART series championship and three 500-mile races and was arguably at the peak of his career. Though he missed four chances at winning Indy, he harbors no resentment.
“I never really look back on it and feel like I got cheated or anything like that,” Vasser said. “It was a situation that everybody had to deal with and I certainly consider winning the U.S. 500 as one of my biggest victories. It’s not the Indy 500, but at the time, it felt like something comparable with everybody being there.
“That was my prime; I won three 500-mile races during the split and seemed to excel more in those,” added the Californian. “But I also ran four Indy 500s during the split with Ganassi and Rahal. So in reality, I wasn’t completely robbed of chances and I’m not bitter.”
Tony Kanaan started his American open-wheel career in CART in 1998 and didn’t get to run his first Indy 500 until 2002. Like Vasser, he’s not crying over un-drunk milk even though he also missed out on chances to take Indy racing’s biggest prize.
“It would have given me more chances to win, that’s all,” Kanaan observed. “This place is different every year. I’ve done five of them, and I would either be more frustrated that I had been here for nine years and hadn’t won, or I would be happy that I got it somewhere around there.
“Because of the split, this place definitely missed a lot of things. Actually, we (drivers) missed a lot of things, and (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) missed a lot of things. I hadn’t been at Indianapolis until I got here to race in 2002, but now I understand what they are talking about.”
Kanaan and Vasser agree that Moore and Zanardi would have been electrifying at Indianapolis. Moore tested a CART-spec car at IMS in late 1995 prior to his Champ Car career, and given the fact that he was signed to drive for Penske Racing in 2000 and beyond, it’s likely that he would have gotten the chance to compete in the 500 had he not been killed at California Speedway in October 1999.
“It turns out Helio got an opportunity and it makes you wonder what would have been of Helio Castroneves if not for Greg Moore’s death,” remarked Vasser. “Greg Moore could have been a many-times champion, no doubt about it. This track (Indianapolis) definitely would have suited him. He was more adept on the ovals, particularly the ones that didn’t have as much banking and he definitely would have been a contender in any 500.”
Kanaan was close friends with Moore and he also believes the late Canadian would have been a force at the Brickyard.
“It is unfortunate because I probably wouldn’t get tired of watching Greg drive around this place. Can you imagine Zanardi and Greg, on their good days, how fast they would have been here? Greg was going to get the chance, I think, if he was around. It’s all about timing, especially in racing.”
[A year and a half after I wrote this story, I asked Dario Franchitti how he thought Moore’s career would have progressed beyond 2000 with Team Penske. “We’ve all speculated about that, whether it was Tony and I, Max (Papis) and I, Jimmy… we’ve definitely had that ‘Can you imagine…?’ conversation. We always just sort of shake our heads and say, ‘We would have all been fighting for second place.’ Greg in those cars, whether it was the Reynard-Hondas that were just so much better than everything else, or in Roger’s IRL cars at the Speedway…I don’t know how many races, championships or 500s he would have won, but it would have been a lot. It would have been quite something and I think he would have re-written the record books. That talent in those cars would have been something special. And it would have been lovely to see it.”]
Zanardi was the dominant driver in CART from 1996-98, winning consecutive championships the latter two years. The charismatic Italian won one 500-miler during his four years of racing Champ Cars and usually did a good impression of Mario Andretti (in other words, ran fast but broke) in his other superspeedway races.
Zanardi never went around the Speedway in anything faster than an IMS tour bus, as Vasser recalls.
“I drove him around the Speedway one of the years he was here and he didn’t seem too impressed with the track or anything like that,” Vasser related with a grin. “But we were driving along Georgetown Road on the outside of the grandstands and there was a vending trailer left there in the wintertime that said ‘Italian Sausage.’ Zanardi said, ‘What is this Italian Sausage?’
“It’s too bad he never got a chance to experience Indy because he ran well at every track and he really had a knack for rising to the occasion.”
Maybe the most unheralded superspeedway driver of the first few years of the CART IRL split was Gugelmin. The friendly Brazilian competed at Indy in 1994 and ’95, and he led the most laps the latter year before fading to a sixth place finish in the final 100 miles.
‘Big Mo’ finished second and third in CART’s two 500-milers in 1996, and he qualified on the front row for both superspeedway events in 1997, including a then-record 241-mph pole lap at California Speedway. Gugelmin could have won both races but car problems relegated him to top six results.
“With his talent in the 500-mile races, for Mauricio to not have put more than one away is a shame,” recalled PacWest Racing owner Bruce R. McCaw. “That may reign as one of my great disappointments of things we didn’t achieve because we were so good and solid and consistent at the 500-mile races.”
Until the Ilmor/Mercedes-Benz engine sapped PacWest’s competitiveness in 1998, Blundell was also developing into a formidable speedway driver who could have excelled at Indianapolis. Blundell finished first and second in the 1997 CART-sanctioned 500-milers but he never turned a competitive lap at the Brickyard.
“One of the biggest regrets when I was there actually was not being able to race at Indianapolis,” said Blundell, who won three CART races in 1997, including the first ever Indy car race at California Speedway. “Part and parcel of my contract when I went to America was Indianapolis was in there, but as we know now, the split took place and we never got to go there.”