Sunday Drivers

June 03, 1996
June 03, 1996

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June 3, 1996

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Motor Sports
Photo Credits: Bill Grimshaw/AP

Sunday Drivers

A wreck from the get-go, the CART-backed U.S. 500 did little damage to the Indy 500's reputation

The Indy car racing civil war is not over, but its battle of Gettysburg has been fought--and Indianapolis held its ground.

This is an article from the June 3, 1996 issue Original Layout

Going into Sunday's clash between traditional and upstart races, the 80th Indianapolis 500 and the first U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George had conceded, "It's a crucial day for us." The world would be watching to see whether Indy, the greatest motor race of them all, could withstand a boycott by Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART), which had most of the sport's top drivers on its side. "But," George had said, "I doubt that a clear winner will be declared at the end of the day."

For certain, at the end of the day there was a clear loser in the feud between George and CART team owners over long-term control of the sport. The rebels took a pratfall when 12 cars piled up approaching the starting line. This was enormously embarrassing to CART, which had predicted cataclysm at Indy. Seventeen rookie drivers, the most to start in an Indy 500 since 1930, were in the 33-car starting grid at the famed Brickyard, but that motley field did all right. There were only two accidents of a serious nature--the most spectacular on the final lap, when only nine cars were still running--and no life-threatening injuries.

A no-name, Buddy Lazier, won Indy, and his performance was gutsier than that of Jimmy Vasser--hardly a household name himself--who won at Michigan, where CART had advertised "the stars and cars of Indianapolis" would be running. If the opinion of Indy loyalist A.J. Foyt is correct ("It's Indianapolis that makes the stars, not the drivers who make Indianapolis") then Lazier has a better shot at stardom than Vasser.

Because he was still recovering from 16 fractures and 25 chips in his lower backbone and tailbone, suffered in a crash at Phoenix in March, Lazier drove the 200 laps at Indianapolis in awful pain. "A month ago I could barely walk on crutches," he said on Sunday, after winning his first Indy car race. Lazier had to be lifted gingerly from his car in Victory Lane, but the tough erstwhile skier from Vail, Colo., tried hard not to flinch.

Later on Sunday, in the U.S. 500, Vasser drove with egg on his face, for it was he who pulled the boneheaded move that initiated the opening melee. Because the crash happened before the start, the filthy-rich CART teams gave themselves a multimillion-dollar Mulligan. All 12 of the drivers involved in the mess got the option of casting aside their wrecked half-million-dollar vehicles and using their backup cars for a restart.

Though the U.S. 500 win was Vasser's fourth victory this season, aficionados of Indy car racing suspect that he is a passenger on a guided missile, a Reynard car powered by a Honda engine that is uncatchable--unless the driver screws up. Well....

As the pole sitter, all Vasser had to do was step on the accelerator and keep his car in line. Instead, he did the worst thing imaginable for a pole sitter: He drifted to the right and got tangled up with No. 2 qualifier Adrian Fernandez coming out of Turn 4, spinning both cars to the right. Vasser then took out the third front-row starter, Bryan Herta, and both cars spun violently into the wall. "It was pretty stupid," said Mauricio Gugelmin, who wound up finishing second in the race. "Jimmy Vasser got a little out of shape." Nine more cars collided as they tried to avoid the wreckage. Vasser and eight other drivers switched to their backup cars, while three others made repairs. Fernandez then scratched completely after his team couldn't get its backup running.

As for the handful of bona fide star drivers at Michigan, such as Michael Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr., they were not factors--no more than they would have been factors at Indy had all been rosy in the sport. They don't have Honda power, which has made a joke of CART "competition."

Somewhat to his credit, Vasser did not override his guidance systems once the race finally got started. He chased his rabbit teammate, Alessandro Zanardi, for half of the 500 miles and then took the lead for good on the 241st of 250 laps after Andre Ribeiro ran out of gas coming out of Turn 4. This was typical of a day in which mechanical and tactical failures, rather than passing skills, were largely responsible for changes at or near the top. Only 11 out of the original 27 cars were running when the race concluded.

Not that Indy's armor wasn't chinked, but nothing happened that will cause George to cave in to CART owners, who include Roger Penske, Carl Haas, actor Paul Newman and Late Show host David Letterman. The old Speedway's 315,000-seat grandstands were virtually full, though the Speedway was not overflowing with the usual race-day crowd of 400,000-plus. Any other one-day sports event on the planet would have been delighted with Indy's "off" crowd.

Granted, the bottom fell out of Indy's ticket-scalping business at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, where the traditional pre-Indy bazaar is always held. "I wasn't alive when Wall Street collapsed, but I know what it must have felt like," a 22-year-old scalper told the Indianapolis Star as his handful of $125 face-value tickets, which would have gone for as much as $1,000 apiece only a year ago, languished at the begging price of $40. A veteran scalper of the World Series, the NCAA Final Four and the Masters screamed into the rainy Saturday-night skies, "This race is over, and it ain't never comin' back!" Still, by starting time on Sunday the grandstands were full, albeit with some spectators who had paid as little as $10.

At Michigan International, where CART had sold tens of thousands of tickets at a substantial discount, there was a capacity crowd--though that was only 110,879.

"We are now two different organizations with two different philosophies," George said late last week, meaning that the divorce with CART was final. All during Indy's month of practice and qualifying, George had been cool to the point of smugness. He was even lackadaisical. "Business as usual," he called it, even after the May 17 death of pole winner Scott Brayton, who succumbed to head injuries after his car slammed into a retaining wall during a test run when one of his tires went flat. George mourned the passing of Brayton at a funeral in Coldwater, Mich., on May 22, but death at the Speedway is hardly new. Even CART stalwart Haas said the crash of the highly experienced Brayton, in a well-prepared car, had nothing to do with CART's criticisms that the replacement Indy field was clunky and dangerous.

Brayton was the 66th person, including the 39th driver, to be killed since the Brickyard opened in 1909 and began hosting 500-mile races in 1911. The Indy 500 has survived the public outcry over those deaths, not to mention two world wars, the Depression and various driver uprisings (the most notable in 1947), which turned out to be hiccups in the Speedway's history, as this flap will be. "Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the greatest racetrack in the world," said Lazier's team owner, Ron Hemelgarn, who had fielded cars at Indy for the past 18 years and could have bought into the CART rebellion but didn't. "And it always will be, whether they run go-karts or stock cars or Indy cars."

Indeed, for all CART's bravado, the men who have helped define racing in this country--the Andrettis, Fittipaldi, the Unsers and others--were truly saddened by their exclusion from Indy. The CART community kept tabs on the Indianapolis 500 out of the corner of its eye on Sunday, simultaneously mourning the break with tradition and hoping their stand-ins at the Brickyard would be exposed as impostors. Two hours before the U.S. 500 began, many of that race's principals tuned television sets to Indy and waited for the circus to commence. You could feel the bad vibrations: Gentlemen, start your envy.

"What they predicted would happen to us happened to them," Hemelgarn said of CART. The uneventful start at Indy occurred primarily because the drivers there tiptoed through the first lap, spreading themselves out to allow almost ludicrous margins for error. Still, the Indy 500 leaders, benefiting from a newly laid, supersmooth surface at the Speedway, often clocked lap speeds of more than 230 mph, obliterating race-lap records set by the supposed major leaguers of CART in years past.

There were no serious accidents at Indianapolis until veteran Lyn St. James and rookie Scott Harrington tangled on the 162nd lap; St. James suffered a fractured wrist. On the final lap Roberto Guerrero spun and collided with Allesandro Zampedri and Eliseo Salazar. Zampedri's car went airborne and landed upside down, and both of his legs were injured. Salazar sustained a bruised right knee. Guerrero, who spent nearly three weeks in a coma after crashing during a tire test at Indy in 1987, was uninjured.

While Indy suffered from yellow fever--10 yellow caution flags resulted in 59 laps during which the race droned on at reduced speeds while debris was cleared off the track--Michigan suffered from red plague. The red flag, which halted drivers following Vasser's gaffe, was displayed for 61 minutes. Plus the U.S. 500 had 12 yellows, for 78 laps.

Best of all for Indy, a deserving star was born there--after seven years of hard knocks at the Speedway and elsewhere on the Indy car circuit. Lazier, 27, failed to qualify at the Speedway in 1989 and '90, qualified but finished last in the '91 race, wound up 14th in '92, failed to qualify in '93 and '94, and fell out of the race after only six laps last year.

There have been few split seconds of higher drama at Indy than when Lazier darted past Davy Jones for the lead, for keeps, with eight laps to go, despite the realization that a crash at 230 mph could re-reshatter his lower backbone, if not kill him. Lazier said the agony he drove in helped him keep his concentration, "because you don't want to do it again." The X-ray of his injuries after the Phoenix crash, he said, "looked like a hard-boiled egg that had been dropped and cracked. Another crash here could have cracked all those areas again. It makes you pay attention. I wasn't scared."

Hemelgarn choked up in the interview room after the race as he recalled that "one year ago at this moment, I was down at Methodist Hospital while Stan Fox [his driver of last year, who suffered life-threatening head injuries in one of the most horrific-looking crashes in Indy history] was in surgery. At the time they didn't think Stan was going to make it." Fox has made a remarkable recovery, and he was walking and talking at the Speedway, though doctors haven't yet cleared him to drive.

For 19 years Hemelgarn had come "with 19 different drivers," and all he'd found was disappointment, heartbreak and horror. Still, he was loyal to the Speedway, and it finally paid off. "This has proved, once and for all, and never to be discussed again," he said, "that the stars are born at this racetrack." Indy had held its ground.

After the race George, the maligned heir to the family fortune that includes the Speedway, signed autographs for 45 minutes and smiled wearily. At 36 he's regarded by CART owners as a punk, unworthy and not smart enough to take total control of Indy car racing. But the fans at the Brickyard on Sunday showed their respect for his race. "Thank you very much," they would say after he signed for them. Many called him sir, which would have galled the silver-haired CART moguls.

"Thanks, Tony....Good job, Tony....Keep it up. We're with you 100 percent."

And best of all: "We'll be back next year."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL GRIMSHAW/AP The front row in Michigan went to pieces after Vasser (12), veered into Fernandez (32) and then Herta (28). [Collision involving cars driven by Jimmy Vasser, Adrian Fernandez and Bryan Herta]COLOR PHOTO: RUSS BENSHEIMER/AP At Indy, Harrington (44) lost his bearings--among other things--and Zampedri flipped over Salazar but survived the mishap handily. [Scott Harrington's car after crash]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STRINGER/AP [Allesandro Zampedri's wrecked car lying upside-down after flipping over Eliseo Salazar's car]COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN With Lazier in the lead, Indy came to a skiddish conclusion, with three of the last five laps run under caution. [Indianapolis 500 workers directing cars driven by Buddy Lazier and others]