IRL: CHAMPCAR/CART: Rahal and Vasser team up on return to Indy 500

By Lori Lovely - Motorsport.com CART supporters cheered Jimmy Vasser's 1996 remark about lactose intolerance, while the IRL disliked the flippant remark but cheered his opening lap blunder in the U.S. 500 at Michigan. On his return to...

By Lori Lovely - Motorsport.com

CART supporters cheered Jimmy Vasser's 1996 remark about lactose intolerance, while the IRL disliked the flippant remark but cheered his opening lap blunder in the U.S. 500 at Michigan. On his return to Indianapolis three years ago, Vasser shrugged off the antagonistic remark with another joke, saying his doctor had informed him he was calcium deficient. Two years of not winning with a more than competitive package under him has softened his barbed tongue slightly as he joins Miller Brewing's Mike Welsh and team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman to announce their intentions to compete at Indianapolis in 2002. "A lot of things have been said," he says quietly. "A lot of things have happened the last five years. But the desire to race and win the Indy 500 remains."

The fire burning in Vasser's heart also stirs within his team owners and sponsor. Welsh hints that an Indy veteran like Vasser might have been a key factor in negotiations to take Team Rahal back to the Speedway after all these years. "Jimmy is a quality talent," he says. "We want a proven winner."

Rahal is pleased - and relieved - that several years of effort have culminated in his return to Indy, scene of the "greatest day of my racing career." He took his turn among the group, reminiscing about his days at the track and all it means to him. "It's great to be back on hallowed ground," he smiles. "Previously we have not had the resources to come here. I'm very pleased to be able to announce our return."

As much as his 1986 victory marks what he considers his greatest accomplishment in the sport, it was the 1993 race that drove home the true significance of Indy. That year he watched from a suite after he failed to qualify for the greatest spectacle in racing, wife Debi sobbing at his side.

Next year he still won't be strapping himself into a car, but he will be back at Indy. And he agrees with Welsh that Vasser is an important element of the equation. "There are a lot of mental issues here," Rahal explains. "It's always been tougher mentally than physically. We need a guy who has his act together."

Having recent experience at the Brickyard - and in the IRL cars - definitely gives Vasser a leg up, as he puts it. But no one is smug about what they're up against. Each man uttered the politically correct phrases about their tough competitors - "especially with Penske and Team Green coming back and raising the bar." Vasser says he's not taking anything for granted, and that Indy hasn't gotten any easier.

To prepare for the big race, Rahal expects his CART driver and team to do a lot of testing, but for now, he's undecided about entering any other IRL races. "It's strictly a 500 program, but maybe we'll go to one race prior to May," he hedges.

He is equally evasive about how many cars he plans to run next season, and about what combination that package will be. "I'm more optimistic of a second car," Rahal surmises. "Right now we're a one-car effort. A second car would have to be equally funded, and that's a big number. We haven't made a final decision about our package yet. It's a difficult choice. There's a lot going on next year."

One thing he's definite about: "This is a Team Rahal project," he proclaims. Unlike the combination of Team Motorola with Panther Racing at this year's event, Team Rahal will not "farm out" their entry. The same crew that mounts the CART charge will prepare and maintain the IRL Indy effort. Rahal expresses a great deal of confidence in the unity and performance of his crew, and feels more comfortable keeping the group together.

Another thing Rahal's certain of is his number one priority. "It's to win the CART championship and the Indy 500." Er, Bobby, are you sure that isn't two priorities?

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Jimmy Vasser , Bobby Rahal
Teams Panther Racing