Throughout CART’s heyday, the 500-mile race at Michigan International Speedway was among the most thrilling in all of motorsport. Typically contested in late July, the race offered speed, danger and close racing in droves. This week on IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at one of Michigan’s most memorable IndyCar events, the 1995 Marlboro 500.
Pruett Edges Unser Jr. for First IndyCar Win
Heading into the 13th round of the 1995 PPG IndyCar World Series, some new twists were added to the typical storylines associated with CART races at Michigan international Speedway. A newly-paved asphalt racing surface opened the door for speeds in excess of 240 miles per hour. In response to the eye-popping speeds, CART opted to reduce the manifold boost pressure by five inches to 40.
CART machines still recorded laps above 230 miles per hour both in single car runs and in the draft, but the 1993 track record set by Mario Andretti at 234.275 miles per hour remained intact.
The pole would go to Comptech Racing’s Parker Johnstone – the first career pole for the Oregon native in his tenth start – with a best lap of 230.458 miles per hour. Alongside Johnstone on the front row would be Forsythe Racing’s Teo Fabi and Newman Haas’ Michael Andretti.
After two aborted attempts to go green for the race, the horses were unleashed. Aside from a lap 8 crash involving Dick Simon Racing’s Carlos Guerrero, the event’s early stages went off cleanly. Johnstone took charge and led the first 45 laps.
The first challenge of the day came from within the Honda camp, as Tasman Motorsports’ Andre Ribeiro took the top spot, while Newman Haas’ Paul Tracy and A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Eddie Cheever also took turns at the front.
Soon after, the Honda-powered cars of Johnstone and Ribeiro returned to the front on lap 51. Ribeiro would take the lead back on lap 58 and remain in front for 67 of the next 71 laps before being sidelined with electrical issues after completing just 130 of 250 circuits.
Ribeiro’s misfortune opened the door for two drivers looking for redemption from the last 500-mile race at Indianapolis to take their turn at the front: Patrick Racing’s Scott Pruett and Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr.
Pruett started eighth and led eight laps in May at Indy, but was relegated to 19th after a devastating crash while running second with only 16 laps remaining.
For Unser Jr. and Team Penske it was a month of May to forget, as both he and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify for the 79th Indy 500.
The struggles of two months before were behind the veteran drivers, as they battled throughout the second half of the race. Two cautions for separate single-car incidents involving Arciero-Wells Racing’s Hiro Matsushita and Dick Simon Racing’s Eliseo Salazar interrupted the battle.
On lap 194, the caution would again fly for another crash, this time involving Lyn St. James and Danny Sullivan. Though St. James walked away from her Dick Simon Lola-Ford relatively unscathed, Sullivan would not be so lucky.
The PacWest driver was helped from his Reynard-Ford machine and airlifted to the hospital with a fractured pelvis. Upon the restart, Unser Jr. retook the lead from Pruett and held serve for the following 22 circuits. After a blistered right-front tire forced Unser Jr. to pit with 20 laps to go, Pruett seemed to have the race in hand.
The race’s final caution, this time for an accident involving the Payton-Coyne Ford of Alessandro Zampedri, put a damper on those plans. The caution set up a six-lap battle for the win between Pruett and Unser Jr. Little Al took advantage of his fresher tires and stormed past the lapped cars between himself and the lead car of Pruett.
Taking the white flag, Unser Jr. swept his Penske-Mercedes machine past the Lola-Ford of Pruett headed into turn one on the 250th and final lap of the event. Just as his shot at victory seemed to have faded, Pruett used a strong run through turn two to pull alongside Unser Jr. by turn three. Carrying that momentum through the final two corners, Pruett edged Unser Jr. at the line and won his first IndyCar race by a slim margin of .056 seconds.
The triumph was not only the first for Pruett – who made his series debut in 1988 – but the first for Firestone since Al Unser’s 1974 Michigan 200 win. It was also the first for his owner Pat Patrick since Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1989 victory at Nazareth.
The 1995 Marlboro 500 continues to be one of the most memorable races not only at Michigan, but in all of IndyCar history. Here’s a look at some of the biggest headlines from a thrilling race.
The win at Michigan would propel Pruett to a career-best finish of seventh in the final points standings. He would win again in CART at Surfers Paradise in 1997, and won the pole for the series’ 1997 event at Michigan.
Pruett’s success on superspeedways continued when the California Speedway, a track similar to Michigan and built by its owner Roger Penske, opened in 1997.
The California native won pole at the 2-mile track in Fontana in 1998 with Patrick Racing and again in 1999 with Arciero Wells (Toyota’s first pole). The 1999 Fontana pole came in what would prove to be Pruett’s last year in open-wheel racing.
Despite his departure from driving in CART, Pruett would later return as a commentator in 2002. He would spend the bulk of his career in sports cars, becoming one of the most decorated road racers in history and retired after Sunday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The 1995 season proved to be the beginning of a renaissance for Patrick Racing in their return to IndyCar.
From 1996 to 2002, the organization won eight more races in CART and finished second and third with Adrian Fernandez and Roberto Moreno, respectively, in the 2000 points standings. After making the jump to the Indy Racing League in 2004, Patrick Racing was unable to find sponsorship for the following season and was sold in 2005.
After a controversial late-race restart robbed Tasman Motorsports and driver Scott Goodyear of a chance to give Firestone its first win at Indianapolis, Pruett was able to give his sponsor the long-awaited win. Firestone would win the next five Michigan races before becoming the sole tire provider in 2000.
Also of note, the race was the last 500-mile race contested before the infamous CART/IRL split in prior to the 1996 season. The next 500-mile race conducted under a unified IndyCar Series would not come until the 2008 Indianapolis 500. The 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club (formerly California) Speedway would be the next 500-mile race outside of Indianapolis run after reunification.
The Michigan 500 has produced several of IndyCar Racing’s greatest races and memories and 1995’s edition ranks up there with some of the track’s best.
Check out the final lap of the race below, with all rights belonging to ABC
Images courtesy of ABC, BridgestoneAmericas.com.