IndyCar Flashback: 1996 Indianapolis 500

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Thank You to everyone who voted in this week’s IndyCar Flashback Fan Vote. The winner and subject of the Indianapolis 500 “Cinderella Story” is the 1996 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.This race began with several on- and off-track headlines, and ended with an incredible comeback to victory for the winner.

Lazier Uses Late Burst to Win First 500

The weeks and months before the 1996 Indianapolis 500 would see the race become a turning point in the history of open-wheel racing. The race would mark the finale for the inaugural season of the Indy Racing League (IRL), founded by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Owner Tony George.

The league was created to provide a low-cost option for owners and give American drivers a chance at open-wheel racing in an all-oval series. George would also institute the “25/8” rule, guaranteeing spots to the top 25 IRL teams through the first two races, provided they qualify at a four-lap average of 220 MPH. As a result, an infuriated CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) would stage their own race at Michigan International Speedway that day-the US 500.

Speeds would climb considerably as a result of a repaving the track received in the offseason. During practice, drivers clocked speeds near 240 MPH. Treadeway-Byrd Racing’s Arie Luyendyk would set the benchmark in pre-qualifying practice, with a lap at 239.260 MPH.

On pole day, Luyendyk looked to have his second 500 pole locked up with a speed of 233.390 MPH. Late in the day, Team Menard’s Scott Brayton withdrew his qualifying run, which had him in fifth. Brayton would go out and post a track record 233.718 MPH average over the four laps to best Luyendyk and win his second straight 500 pole. In post-qualifying inspection, Luyendyk’s car was found to be underweight and his time was disallowed.

The next day, the 1990 winner made a blistering run, shattering the one- and four lap records Brayton had set the previous day. After qualifying on the second day, Luyendyk would qualify 21st.

Tragedy struck the following Thursday, a punctured tire sent Brayton crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall. He would not survive the impact. Team Menard would hire Danny Ongais to take over the No.32 Lola-Menard. Ongais, who had not raced an IndyCar since the 1987 Miami event, would start 33rd because of the driver change. Ongais’ teammate Tony Stewart would be moved to the pole position, the first rookie pole sitter since Teo Fabi in 1983.

Stewart, one of 17 rookies in the field, would continue to show the speed of his Lola-Menard machine, pacing the field for the first 31 laps (a rookie record). The Indiana native would lead 13 more laps before dropping out of the race on Lap 83 with an engine issue. Despite finishing 24th, he would be named Rookie of the Year.

15 laps later, Luyendyk who had worked his way through the field, collided with Eliseo Salazr in the warmup lane on Lap 98. After sustaining damage, he would finish 15th, sidelined by suspension damage after Lap 149. Luyendyk and Stewart’s issues paved the way for four veterans to battle for the win over the second half of the race.

Davy Jones, who started second and wasdriving for 1992 winner Galles Racing in his seventh 500, led from Lap 98 to 120. Next, a new contender found his way to the front.

Buddy Lazier was making his sixth start at the 500, but the leadup to his start was nothing short of remarkable. In March, the Colorado native suffered a fractured back. After having a special seat made for him, he was able to race, despite the pain. Television even showed Lazier raising his hands to stretch his fingers during cautions.

After leading from Lap 121 to 133, Lazier pitted and handed the lead over to 1992 pole sitter and two-time runner-up Roberto Guerrero. The Pagan Racing driver would lead the next 25 laps, giving him 47 on the day, more than any driver. Jones and Lazier swapped the lead three more times over the ensuing ten laps. Alessandro Zampedri, one of seven drivers for Team Scandia, worked his way to the lead with 31 laps to go and remained there for the next 19 laps.

Jones chased down Zampedri and retook the lead with 11 laps to go as the two began to worry about fuel. Three laps later, Lazier made an incredible charge past Zampedri and Jones to the lead. The comeback story was not yet complete for the veteran driver, though.

Eventual IRL co-champion Scott Sharp crashed on the back straightaway with five laps to go. The accident was cleaned up and the field went green after a four-lap caution, setting up a last-lap dash for the win.

After getting the green flag, Lazier sped away from Jones and his Reynard/Ford-Cosworth machine crossed the famed Yard of Bricks .695 seconds ahead.  It would be the first career win for the Hemelgarn Racing driver and Firestone’s first win as a tire supplier since 1971 with Al Unser.

Meanwhile, a major crash broke out in Turn 4. Guerrero’s car got loose in Turn 4, Zampedri clipped his car and was sent flying into the catch fence. Salazar drove underneath the wrecked car of Zampedri and was hit into the outside retaining wall.

Zampedri would suffer injuries to his wrist and feet, but would return to the speedway the following year. In victory lane, Buddy Lazier would climb out of his car, still in a great deal of pain from his crash, to celebrate his victory.

Analysis

Despite the controversy that surrounded the race, the 1996 Indianapolis 500 remains one of the most memorable in the 101 runnings. Here’s a look at what would become for the event’s big names.

Buddy Lazier celebrates his win in the 1996 Indianapolis 500

Buddy Lazier: 

Lazier would recover from his injuries and become one of the early stars of the Indy Racing League.

The Colorado native would collect seven more wins and the 2000 Series Championship. He also has finished in the Top Five at Indianapolis three more times and has appeared in four of the last five races with his own team.

Davy Jones: 

Jones and Galles Racing would make five starts in CART together later on in the year.

The 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans winner would sustain a severe neck injury during a practice crash at Walt Disney World Speedway the following season. Following his recovery, Jones attempted to qualify for the 2000 Indianapolis 500 with Team Coulson, but was unsuccessful.

Team Menard: 

One of many hard-luck teams at Indianapolis over the years, John Menard’s group would continue to see victory at Indy slip from their grasp. 1997 would see Tony Stewart, who had done a stellar job for the team in his first two seasons, win the 1996-97 IRL Championship. Menard would get a taste of victory at Indy in 2011, when his son Paul won NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the speedway with Richard Childress Racing.

Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.

Spencer Neff

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