By: Spencer Neff
April 11, 2019 | 11:12 AM
Entering its 36th appearance on the IndyCar circuit, the Grand Prix of Long Beach has become one of racing’s most iconic events.
Often billed as the pinnacle of street course racing, it has hosted disciplines such as Formula 1, IMSA and more since it first hosted a Formula 5000 event in 1975.
The track’s legacy has primarily featured IndyCar, though. Since 1984, America’s premier open-wheel racing series has ventured to the Southern California venue.
In that time, the track has seen many iconic moments, from on-track duels to historic accomplishments.
For this week’s IndyCar Flashback, we’ll feature a race that had several fascinating storylines. In the end, the winner continued an impressive streak of his own, while starting several others.
Vasser wins third consecutive race as de Ferran’s engine falters
The first three races of the 1996 PPG IndyCar World Series season had been dominated by Jimmy Vasser. In his second season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Vasser won two of the first three races. At Long Beach, in his home state of California, he would not start off with quite the same magic.
While Hall Racing’s Gil de Ferran set a new track record for the pole (109.639 MPH-52.208 seconds), Vasser would start third. In all, the first three drivers broke the track record set by Newman-Haas’ Michael Andretti a year earlier (109.066 MPH-52.482 seconds).
Further back in the field, Arciero-Wells’ Jeff Krosnoff (23rd) and All-American Racers’ Juan Manuel Fangio II (26th) were a part of history.
Their cars were the first in the history of the race to be powered by long-time race sponsor Toyota. Fangio’s car owner, Dan Gurney, also saw the media center renamed in his honor.
At the start, de Ferran sped past fellow front row competitor Alex Zanardi of Chip Ganassi Racing. The 1993 Long Beach winner Paul Tracy took over third place from Vasser, but the drivers continued an intense battle for the spot.
On Lap 3, the two drivers even made light contact with each other’s tires in Turn 1. Shortly after, Tracy locked his brakes, resulting in a Turn 1 half-spin. Tracy’s issues allowed Vasser to take hold of third-place.
A lap later, Tasman Motorsports’ Andre Ribeiro smacked the inside wall in Turn 1. The Rio event winner was out of the race, but a full-course yellow would be avoided.
With the race staying green, de Ferran kept his car ahead of Zanardi early on. Just before his first stop on Lap 39, de Ferran’s lead had ballooned to 3.4 seconds.
During de Ferran’s pit stop, Zanardi inherited the race lead. Unfortunately for the impressive rookie, that would be short-lived.
On Lap 40, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver made contact with Bobby Rahal in Turn 1. Rahal spun but continued on while Zanardi’s Reynard-Honda suffered front wing damage. A promising start for the young driver ended abruptly with nothing to show but disappointment.
During the race’s first full-course yellow flag, Walker Racing’s Robby Gordon suffered a fuel connector issue which led to a fire on pit road. Gordon was able to continue despite stalling on pit road shortly after.
After his teammate’s misfortune,Vasser was able to move up to second place. In front, de Ferran again took off after the restart. Soon after, the carnage would continue to unfold.
On Lap 48, Newman-Haas’ Christian Fittipaldi and Forsythe Racing driver Greg Moore collided in Turn 6. Debris from the accident littered the track. Emerson Fittipaldi (Christian’s uncle) ran over one of Moore’s wheels and was collected in the melee, ending the Penske-Hogan driver’s day as well.
Following the accident, an irate Fittipaldi got into a heated discussion with Moore. After the Lap 54 restart, there was more contact deep in the field, and on Lap 58, Gordon made contact with Team Rahal rookie Bryan Herta and spun. After re-firing, both drivers were able to continue on without a full-course yellow flag being displayed.
The race would go to a full-course yellow just once more. On Lap 71, it was again Gordon who made contact with the Turn 6 tire barrier after locking his brakes.
On Lap 77, the event restarted for the final time. Behind de Ferran, Tracy was black-flagged for passing Vasser during the yellow.
With Tracy serving a stop-and-go penalty, Vasser took over second as de Ferran continued to lead. As he second career victory loomed, de Ferran’s lead over Vasser continued to swell above the eight-second mark.
As the laps dwindled, de Ferran began to experience an engine header issue. With four laps to go, smoke began to appear from the back of his Reynard-Honda.
On the backstretch during that lap, Vasser took over the lead. Despite a collision between Gordon and Rahal at Turn 8 with three to go, Vasser sped on to victory. In the process, the Canoga Park-native became the first California-born driver to win at Long Beach.
Behind Vasser, Brix Comptech Racing’s Parker Johnstone earned a career-best finish of second. Team Penske driver and “King of the Beach” Al Unser Jr. rounded out the podium. De Ferran was able to finish the race on the lead lap in fifth.
As a result of the win, Vasser’s points lead over Patrick Racing’s Scott Pruett was extended to 23.
Although he won just once more in 1996, Vasser went on to win the championship.
In second, Johnstone scored a career-best finish. Although Unser Jr. ended the race in third and did not earn a third consecutive (seventh overall) win at Long Beach, he did earn a Top-10 finish for the 10th time in 13 starts.
After switching to Walker Racing amid the Hall team’s disbanding, de Ferran again started on the pole for the 1997 race but finished 21st after suspension issues knocked him out of the event.
Despite starting no worse than seventh in each Long Beach race he entered, de Ferran’s best effort would be a third-place finish in 2001, his last appearance at the track.
Vasser’s win would start several impressive streaks. From 1996 to 2002, every race at the street circuit was won in a Reynard chassis powered by a Honda engine.
The year 1996 also served as Firestone’s maiden victory at Long Beach. In the 22 races since, Bridgestone America has provided tires for the winner of every Long Beach race. Since 2000, they have provided tires exclusively for IndyCar (Bridgestone was also ChampCar’s provider from 2003 to 2008).
1996 also served as a breakout year for the Ganassi team. That year, they earned the first of four straight wins at Long Beach (Zanardi in 1997-98 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999). Even more impressively, the driver who won Long Beach also conquered the championship in those years.
Since that dominant run, Ganassi has gone to victory lane with Dario Franchitti (2009) and Scott Dixon (2015) on the street course. The team is tied with Team Penske and Newman-Haas Racing for most victories at the track with six apiece.
Also of note, in 2018 Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (Auburn) joined Vasser as Californians to win at their home track. Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta (Valencia) could join that group if he were to win on Sunday.
Note: Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our poll on Twitter to select this week’s IndyCar Flashback.
There will continue to be a poll on our Twitter page (@Open_Wheels) to determine the race profiled for IndyCar Flashback prior to each race weekend. Keep an eye out each race week for the poll to cast your vote.
Header Image By Simon Bruty/Allsport.