Monterey, Calif. -- Two first-place finishes. Three podium appearances. Four top-four finishes. One pole position. One track record. Best of all, two PPG Cup championships clinched. With such an impressive list of accomplishments at the...
Monterey, Calif. -- Two first-place finishes. Three podium appearances. Four top-four finishes. One pole position. One track record. Best of all, two PPG Cup championships clinched.
With such an impressive list of accomplishments at the Grand Prix of Monterey over the last two seasons, it's no wonder the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team is eager to return to "Lucky Laguna" for the 16th leg of the CART FedEx Championship Series on Sept. 13.
It was in Monterey in 1996 that Target/Chip Ganassi Racing celebrated the first of its three consecutive CART championships. Jimmy Vasser's fourth-place finish and 12-point day in a very memorable season finale gave the California native 154 points for the year and earned him CART's ultimate prize. Tallying four victories and four pole positions that season, Vasser finished 22 points ahead of runner-up Michael Andretti and third-place finisher Zanardi.
Zanardi's performance that day drew nearly as many headlines as Vasser's championship coronation and gave Target/Chip Ganassi Racing cause for a double-dousing of champagne. In a fitting culmination to his sensational rookie season, the 29-year-old Italian staged a spectacular last-lap pass of leader Bryan Herta in the fabled corkscrew section of the Monterey course and took his third checkered flag of the season (all of which came from the pole position). In executing the seemingly impossible pass, Zanardi jumped one curb, motored through a stretch of sand and dirt, jumped over another curb back onto the track and squeaked by a stunned Herta just seconds from the finish line.
Exclaimed an ecstatic Chip Ganassi following the race: "Out of 100 drivers, five would try that pass. One would make it."
"Hollywood should be calling," wrote Victor Chi of the San Jose Mercury News. "Zanardi made a last-second maneuver that would have shamed the Starship Enterprise."
One year later, in the second-to-last race of the season, lucky lightning struck Laguna Seca again, sparking another double celebration in the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing camp. In a reversal of their positions in 1995, the 1996 race saw Vasser claim the checkered flag by a nose, while Zanardi clinched the team's second consecutive PPG Cup with a third-place finish. Vasser, who started sixth, led the final 58 laps of the 83-lap race and held on to edge runner-up Mark Blundell by just 0.543 seconds. In claiming his first victory of the season, Vasser posted a race-record speed of 109.647 miles per hour and climbed from seventh to third in the PPG Cup point standings.
Zanardi's podium finish, which was the sixth in his last seven races, gave him an insurmountable 41-point lead in the point standings and allowed his name to be etched on the 1997 PPG Cup. Zanardi became just the second driver in CART history to win Rookie of the Year honors and the PPG Cup championship in his first two seasons. Target/Chip Ganassi Racing became the first CART team to repeat as champions since Truesports accomplished the feat with Bobby Rahal in 1986 and 1987, and Zanardi and Vasser became the first teammates to win back-to-back PPG Cup championships since Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. did so for Penske Racing in 1982 and 1983.
Zanardi's fourth-place finish at last week's Molson Indy Vancouver allowed him to clinch his second consecutive PPG Cup championship and eliminated the possibility of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing clinching the championship at Laguna Seca for the third consecutive season. Although the PPG Cup title will not be on the line when they hit the track on Sept. 13, Zanardi and Vasser still have plenty of motivation for taking the checkered flag and hoisting the Monterey Grand Prix trophy.
"It's fantastic that I've won the 1998 championship," Zanardi says, "but there are still four other championships that can be won, starting with Laguna Seca. We're still going to continue to push as hard as we can and try to win every race."
"Now that Alex has wrapped up the championship," Vasser says, "obviously my goal is to finish second and give Target/Chip Ganassi Racing a one-two finish, which would be fantastic. There are five or six of us battling for that second-place spot, though, so the last four races should be very interesting and exciting."
As they return to the scenic Monterey peninsula where their championship dreams have been fulfilled the last two seasons, Zanardi and Vasser both say they have special feelings and warm memories.
"Obviously with two wins and two championships, Monterey is a very special place for us," Zanardi says. "For me to win the championship there last year and see Jimmy on top of the podium was absolutely fantastic. The 1996 race was one of the most memorable races and fantastic finishes in my career, and the celebration was even sweeter because Jimmy won the championship. We've had some exciting and happy times there, that's for sure.
"The biggest reason Laguna Seca is so special to me," Zanardi adds, "is that's where I met with Chip (Ganassi) in 1995 and he offered me the opportunity to test and then drive for him."
"Laguna Seca has definitely been a fantastic place for the team the past two years," echoes Vasser. "Winning the championship there in 1996 was the highlight of my career and a day I won't ever forget. Alex won the race with that unbelievable pass in the corkscrew, so it was an all-around great day for us.
"Last year we flip-flopped," he continues. "I won the race and Alex clinched the championship. That was another special day and a great celebration for the whole Target team. I hope Alex and I both end up on the podium at Laguna Seca again this year. We'd love to continue the success we've had there the last two years." Returning to Monterey each year is particularly special for Vasser because he was raised in nearby Morgan Hill, less than an hour away from Laguna Seca Raceway. "I grew up about 45 minutes from there, so it's basically my home track," he says. "I'm very familiar with the course and feel quite comfortable there. I always have a lot of friends and family out for that race weekend, so it's a nice reunion. It's a beautiful area and is really like home to me."
In describing the 2.238-mile permanent road course, Vasser notes, "The elevation changes at Laguna Seca are unlike any other on our circuit. Coming down the corkscrew and down the hill all the way to Turn 11 is probably one of the most exciting sections of racetrack that we run on."
Asked for his assessment of the winding sea-side track, Zanardi says, "It's a beautiful area and a beautiful road course, but the circuit is really tough. Obviously, you need a good race car and a good set-up, but more than that, it's very challenging physically. It's very demanding in the race, but over a single lap it's not a place where you can take advantage of the good luck of the car. You also have to earn the speed in qualifying and the rhythm of the race, which is what is going to take you to the podium finish."
In closing, Zanardi noted one other motivating factor that he and Vasser have for taking the checkered flag at Laguna Seca. "Jimmy won there two years ago, and I won last year, so I guess it's time to see which of us can make it best two-out-of-three."