July 15, 1998 JIMMY VASSER AND ALEX ZANARDI, TARGET/CHIP GANASSI RACING; PRE-RACE NOTES : U.S. 500 What: U.S. 500, round 12 of CART's 19-race FedEx Championship Series. When: Sunday, July 26, 1 p.m. EST. Where: ...
July 15, 1998
JIMMY VASSER AND ALEX ZANARDI, TARGET/CHIP GANASSI RACING; PRE-RACE NOTES : U.S. 500
What: U.S. 500, round 12 of CART's 19-race FedEx Championship Series.
When: Sunday, July 26, 1 p.m. EST.
Where: Michigan Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich. -- 2-mile oval.
Distance: 250 laps/500 miles
Broadcast: Live on ABC-TV and the CART Radio Network.
History: Alex Zanardi posted his first superspeedway victory at last year's U.S. 500, topping runner-up Mark Blundell by 31.74 seconds, the largest margin of victory in 17 CART races last season. The win vaulted Zanardi to the top of the PPG Cup point standings, where he remained for the rest of the season. Vasser was knocked out with transmission problems on Lap 57 - the last time he failed to complete a race - and finished 24th. In the inaugural U.S. 500 in 1996, Vasser won from the pole in his backup car. Zanardi was forced out by contact on Lap 128 and finished 21st.
Fast Facts (prior to Molson Indy Toronto): * Zanardi has won five races this season, including four of the last five, and has taken the checkered flag at all four road courses.
* Zanardi needed just 41 races to post his 12th CART victory. Only Rick Mears reached a dozen wins quicker, accomplishing the feat in 38 races.
* The 1998 U.S. 500 represents Vasser's 100th CART race. He joins Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Scott Pruett and Paul Tracy, CART drivers who started 100 races or more.
* Zanardi has climbed to eighth on the all-time CART victories list to tie Paul Tracy. He needs four more victories to tie Danny Sullivan for seventh.
* Eleven of Zanardi's 13 CART victories, 16 of his 21 podium finishes and eight of his 10 pole positions have come on road or street courses. In the last 10 road/street races (prior to Toronto), he has seven wins, one runner-up finish, one third-place finish and one fourth-place finish.
* Vasser and Zanardi, who won PPG Cup championships in 1996 and 1997, respectively, are the first CART drivers to appear on a Wheaties box. The boxes are available in Target stores nationwide while supplies last.
* Vasser, who led all CART drivers in races completed in 1996 (16) and 1997 (15), is the only driver who has finished all ten races this season (prior to Toronto). He has completed 46 of his last 49 races dating back to Cleveland in 1995.
* Zanardi has already tallied more points this season (155) than he did the entire 1996 season (132) when he finished third in the PPG Cup standings.
* Prior to the Molson Indy, Zanardi and Vasser won seven of the 10 races this season, including five in a row. Zanardi took the checkered flag at Long Beach, Gateway, Detroit, Portland and Cleveland, and Vasser won at Nazareth and Milwaukee. The last team to win five races in a row was Team Penske, which reeled off seven consecutive victories in 1994 with drivers Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi.
* Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has posted victories in 20 of its last 43 races and boasts 19 podium finishes in its last 18 races, prior to Toronto.
* Zanardi's 134 laps led at the 1996 U.S. 500 are the most he has ever led in a race during his CART career.
* Zanardi has 14 podium finishes in his last 17 races, including five victories, two runner-up finishes and one third-place finish in 10 races this season, prior to Toronto.
* During the Rio 400, his 37th CART race, Zanardi achieved the milestone of 1,000 career laps led. In CART's 20-year history, only one other driver reached 1,000 laps led faster than Zanardi (Bobby Unser - 25 races). Zanardi now ranks 12th in CART history and 19th in Champ car history with 1,332 career laps led.
* Prior to Toronto, Vasser has started 77 consecutive races since the 1993 season, the third-longest streak among active CART drivers. Only Bobby Rahal (87) and Mauricio Gugelmin (78) have more consecutive starts.
Quick Quotes: Jimmy Vasser: "I've spent a lot of time testing at Michigan, so I feel I know the track as well as any on the circuit. I feel very familiar and comfortable there, so if we can get the car running well I think we'll have as good a shot at winning as anybody."
Alex Zanardi: "The U.S. 500 is a race where the car is definitely very important. That can be a little frustrating for the driver because you cannot make up for a lack of performance from the car. What gets rewarded at the end of the race is not just your talent and ability to drive the car fast, but also your ability to concentrate throughout the day and to develop and improve your car throughout the race in order to have exactly what you want on the last set of laps."
St. Jude Children's Hospital (prior to Molson Indy Toronto ):
* Once again this year, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing is donating $5,000 for each race win, $1,000 for each pole position and $25 for each lap led to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Contributions are being used for construction of the Target House at St. Jude's.
* The team has raised $51,975 this season, surpassing the team's 1997 donation, including $7,974 at the Medic Drug Grand Prix on July 12, the highest single-race total ever. Target contributed an additional $1,000 when Alex Zanardi registered his 1,000th career lap led in the Rio 400 on May 10, bringing the grand total raised this season to $52,975.
* In 1997, the team raised $46,275 for St. Jude's Hospital. In recognition of the team's back-to-back championships, Target matched that donation and rounded up to bring the total donation in 1997 to $100,000.
* The team's top five single-race totals over the last two seasons are as follows: $7,974 at Cleveland 1998; $7,600 at U.S. 500 1997; $7,575 at Gateway 1998; $6,925 at Milwaukee 1998; $6,750 at Cleveland 1997.
ZANARDI AND VASSER RECALL U.S. 500 SUCCESSES
As back-to-back winners of the U.S. 500, Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi obviously have fond memories of their experiences at the Brooklyn, Mich., track. For 1996 winner Vasser, Michigan Speedway has become a sort of home away from home. In addition to running three races there, he has logged hundreds of miles on the track during several testing sessions over the last three years, and the track will serve as grounds for Vasser's 100th CART career start. He feels particularly comfortable there. "I've spent a lot of time testing at Michigan, so I know that track as well as any on the circuit. I feel very familiar and comfortable with the track, so if we can get the car running well I think we'll have as good a shot at winning as anybody." Perhaps as a result of his familiarity with the track, Vasser has enjoyed more than his share of success there. As a rookie in 1995, he started fifth and finished seventh at the Marlboro 500.
In 1996, Vasser captured pole positions at both 500-mile races in Brooklyn - at the inaugural U.S. 500 in May and again at the Marlboro 500 in July, where he established the track record with a qualifying lap speed of 234.665 mph. It was at that inaugural U.S. 500 race, however, where Vasser truly made a name for himself. When you're involved in a 12-car pileup before the race even begins and then somehow manage to drive your backup car to victory, people take notice. "That was a big weekend for us," Vasser recalled, "because it was the inaugural U.S. 500 and we were racing the same day as the Indy 500. Getting the win in our backup car in a really tough race was something special, so I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for Michigan and the U.S. 500."
Considering the somewhat bizarre way he won that first U.S. 500, Vasser's feelings are easy to understand.
Starting on the pole in his No. 12 Target Reynard Honda, Vasser was leading the 27-car field to the green flag to start the event when he and Adrian Fernandez made contact coming out of Turn Four, setting off a chain reaction that affected a dozen cars. When the race resumed after a 61-minute delay, only Fernandez was unable to continue, but Vasser and four other drivers had been forced into their backup cars.
After the restart, Vasser led the first 18 laps of the race before giving way to teammate Zanardi, who was making his superspeedway debut. The rookie led 134 of the next 145 laps and appeared on the way to his first CART victory until engine problems sidelined him on Lap 175. Four drivers exchanged leads over the final 87 laps of the race, but Vasser was the only one who went problem-free the rest of the way. Vasser took the lead for good when he passed Roberto Ribeiro with 10 laps to go and went on to post an 11-second margin of victory over runner-up Mauricio Gugelmin.
"The backup car was not as good as the first car," Vasser said after the win, which netted him a $1 million prize. "We worked to make it better on every pit stop. Our radios got a real work out all day. I was talking all the time with Tom (Anderson, managing director) and Julian (Robertson, engineer) about what to do. We were thrashing, trying things to improve the car, moving the anti-roll bars, changing wickerbills, tire pressures, wing angles. That's the way it was all day long. After the last stop, we really had the car working well."
In last year's U.S. 500, Vasser started in the fourth position but was forced out of the race after just 57 laps due to transmission problems. Fortunately for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, an underdog named Zanardi was ready to step in to save the day ... in a big way. How could the eventual PPG Cup champion be considered an underdog? And why was his performance so surprising? Considering the following: In his 11 previous oval races, Zanardi's average finish was 12th and he had no podium appearances. Among those forgettable results was a 24th-place finish at Homestead in 1996, 13th-place finishes at Nazareth and Milwaukee in 1996, an 11th-place finish at Nazareth in 1997 and a 13th-place finish at Milwaukee in 1997. He had been knocked out of his two superspeedway appearances in 1996, both of which came at Michigan Speedway. In addition to the engine problem that resulted in a 17th-place finish at the U.S. 500, he crashed into the wall during the Marlboro 500 two months later and finished 21st.
With that kind of unenviable track record on ovals, Zanardi's impressive victory at the 1997 U.S. 500 was a welcome relief, and, like Vasser's win the year before, caught people's attention. In notching his sixth career win and third victory of the season, Zanardi led a race-high 104 of 250 laps, including the final 31 laps, and posted the largest margin of victory of the CART season - 31.737 seconds. Like he had done two races before in Cleveland, Zanardi had to overcome a drive-through (pit lane) penalty. The victory also vaulted him to the top of the PPG Cup point standings, where he remained for the rest of the year. Best of all for Zanardi, he was no longer "Oh for the ovals."
"For me to win that race was really special," Zanardi recalled with a smile. "People (in America) tend to judge you not only on how you do on the road and street courses, but especially how you do on the ovals. You make a name for yourself on the circuit if you can win on all different courses, but especially on the 500-mile races. At the end of that race, I said to myself, 'Now I know I can do it.' "I think I gained some of the hearts of the fans by winning on the superspeedway. I became a little more American and a little less Italian," he added with a laugh. As he prepares to defend his U.S. 500 title on July 26, the "King of the Road" says he is eager to once again experience the speed of the super oval. "If you're a driver, you better be in love with the speed, and the superspeedways are the ultimate in speed and the maximum expression of what you can do with the car. With that kind of speed, it's an unbelievable sensation that only a few of us in the world can enjoy and experience." Although there is a tremendous emphasis on speed at Michigan Speedway, Zanardi said the keys to victory there have less to do with sheer speed and more to do more with endurance, patience and improvement.
"The U.S. 500 is a race where the car is definitely very important," he said. "That can be a little frustrating for the driver because you cannot make up for a lack of performance from the car. What gets rewarded at the end of the race is not just your talent and ability to drive the car fast, but also your ability to concentrate throughout the day and to develop and improve your car throughout the race in order to have exactly what you want on the last set of laps." If Zanardi and Vasser and their crews can make those refinements and improvements this year the way they have the past two years, what Target/Chip Ganassi Racing might have on the last set of laps is a shot at a third U.S. 500 win.