May 26 marks the 25th anniversary of what would be the first of a short-lived rival event to the Indianapolis 500, namely the U.S. 500, held roughly 230 miles to the northeast at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.
Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) decided not to run at Indianapolis in 1996 because of new rules implemented by the upstart Indy Racing League—founded and overseen by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George—that allowed 25 IRL entries in the 500, leaving just eight spots for cars from CART to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
That sealed a contentious and fractious split between the two racing organizations, which would do battle for more than a decade until merging prior to the 2008 season. But the damage had been done, as open-wheel racing has never been the same since the infamous split in ‘96.
NASCAR took advantage of the divide to become the most popular racing series in the U.S. and, even though IndyCar has seen some upward progress the last few seasons, NASCAR remains No. 1 to this day.
The U.S. 500 was held on the same date as the Indy 500, albeit with a slightly smaller car count: Indy had its traditional 33-car field, with the U.S. 500 starting just 27 cars. While optimism was high and a near-sellout crowd of 120,000 was in attendance at MIS, the U.S. 500 turned into a debacle before the green flag even fell. With cars making parade laps and preparing for the green flag three-wide in Indy 500 style, the race didn’t even get underway before a huge crash in Turn 4 took out 10 cars, more than a third of the starting field.
(Editor’s note: And those in the old bunker of a press room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway watching the U.S. 500 start on the small screens let out more than a few chuckles at the rather inauspicious start.)
Jimmy Vasser remembers that day as if it were yesterday. The California native—now a co-owner of the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan IndyCar race team—sat on the pole and was bringing the field to the green when contact between his car and that of Adrian Fernandez coming out of Turn 4 on that final pace lap triggered the domino-like wreck.
CART officials allowed teams to go to their backup cars and after a lengthy clean-up, the green flag finally dropped and the 200-lap event was underway.
Despite the inauspicious start, Vasser would go on to win the $1 million prize in the U.S. 500 (he also won $100,000 for earning the pole), marking his fourth win in the season’s first six races. Vasser ultimately won the CART championship at season’s end for the first and only time in his career.
In yet another irony of sorts to the day, the U.S. 500 (televised by ESPN) significantly cut into ABC’s viewership when it finally got underway shortly after the Indy 500 reached its own halfway point down in Indianapolis.
The U.S. 500 was essentially and ultimately a one-off event on that Memorial Day weekend. It would return for three more years at MIS, but was held in late July instead of Memorial Day—and more importantly, no longer against the Indy 500. It would be renamed in 2000, and its last year was 2001 before the event shifted to the IRL.
In an interview with Autoweek, Vasser was asked what he remembered about the first U.S. 500. His answer was somewhat surprising.
“I just didn’t believe it would actually happen. But lo and behold, it did.”
“First of all, I would have rather been in Indianapolis, for sure,” Vasser told Autoweek. “It was just amazing that it somehow got to that point. … I just didn’t believe it would actually happen. But lo and behold, it did. And we found ourselves in Michigan on Memorial Day weekend, and nobody really wanted to be there.
“But we were working for our owners and the start was a complete disaster. I don’t think it had anything to do with going three-wide. Maybe that was a bit of a gimmick. However, there’s plenty of space and the drivers are capable of doing it.
“I just remember coming to the green and Fernandez hitting my right rear and sent me straight across the middle of the field and melee ensued.”
As Vasser said, there was quite a bit of gimmickry in the race. Included in that was bringing back the Vanderbilt Cup, the first trophy ever awarded in U.S. racing (1904). And then there were the mean-faced armed security guards seemingly ready to shoot on sight anyone who tried to steal the $1 million bucks.
Vasser admits he got wrapped up in the gimmickry in a way, as well. When he was in victory lane, celebrating his triumph, he took a jab at the Indy 500 and one of its longest-standing and most notable traditions, saying “Who needs milk?”
“I wasn’t making a political statement, by no means. And then I remember when the boys showed up to the shop the next morning, there was a bottle of milk at the front gate of the shop over on 38th Street back then in Indy. Somebody obviously thought that we needed some milk or that maybe there were some death threats, too.”
While Vasser and most of his CART colleagues admittedly would have liked to be at Indy, they collectively agreed to put on the best show they could at MIS.
“We were focused, we weren’t organizing any statement or position, it wasn’t like that,” Vasser said. “We were all driving for the best teams in Indy car, and were all getting paid a lot of money to do so.”
At the same time, Vasser commiserated with the 33 drivers who competed at Indianapolis.
“It was a great opportunity,” Vasser said. “That’s probably the only good thing that came out of it is that some drivers got an opportunity to drive the Indy 500 that wouldn’t have ever done. For that handful of drivers that drove the Indy 500 and maybe for a year or two or a few years, that’s the only good that came out of that.”
That the U.S. 500 eventually went away was somewhat disappointing to Vasser.
“I think they truly had the idea that it would be a big race and a famous race, and it just didn’t work out that way,” Vasser said. “I’m not down about that or anything, it’s just a fact.”
If the split had not occurred, Vasser believes he and several other drivers would have had a chance to see their faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy as Indy 500 winners.
“During that period of time, the time of the split, I won three 500-mile races and a couple of poles,” Vasser said. “But it seems like that never gets brought up. My face is not on the Borg. With those three 500-mile wins, maybe I would have won one Indy, maybe more, but you’ll never know.
“And it’s not just poor old Jimmy, (Alex) Zanardi never got a chance at Indy, (the late) Greg Moore never got a chance at Indy, Michael (Andretti) missed more opportunities at the 500. A lot of great drivers just got slighted to have their face on the trophy.”
One other individual who could have added to his Indy 500 hardware is team owner Roger Penske, whose teams have won the world’s biggest race 18 times. Penske and his teams sat out the 500 for five straight years—from 1996 through 2000—before returning in 2001 in spectacular fashion when Helio Castroneves won the race for himself and The Captain.
While the U.S. 500 is long-ago history, many fans still remind Vasser that they were there in person or watched the race on TV.
“Oh yeah, I still get a lot of ticket stubs and memorabilia (to autograph), people saying they were there that day,” Vasser said. “I still remember it was packed, full with fans. There were 100,000-some odd people there that day that made the choice to be at that race and that was pretty cool that the sport had that many fans that were still supporting the teams and drivers and the cause, really. It was a real day in history for Indy car racing, a big one.”
As we ended the interview, Vasser recalled another big day in history for Indy car racing that was just as personal for him as that day back in 1996: He finally was part of an Indy 500-winning team when KV Racing Technology, which he was co-owner of at the time, won the 2013 race with Tony Kanaan behind the wheel.
“I got to ride to victory lane on the side of the car with Tony, one of the best pictures I have in my office,” Vasser said. “So in a way, I did get my Indy 500.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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