The Verizon IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend, with the series heading to Road America. The 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin has produced several memorable moments since its debut in 1982. This week for IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at one of the track’s wildest races: the 1996 Texaco/Havoline 200.
Andretti Prevails as Unser Jr. Stumbles
13 races into the 16-race 1996 CART season, the championship, the championship was still very much up for grabs. The Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi sat first and third in the standings. Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr. separated the Ganassi duo in second, 17 points behind despite being winless during the year.
Zanardi would earn an early advantage, securing pole for the 50-lap race and the extra point that came with it. Lining up beside the Italian rookie on the front row would be Hall Racing’s Gil de Ferran. The Brazilian outdueled Zanardi to win at Cleveland in June.
The start became another hotly-contested battle between the two, as they collided and de Ferran wound up in the gravel in Turn 3. Further back, Penske-Hogan driver Jan Magnussen would also end up in the gravel.
The chaotic start allowed Newman Haas’ Christian Fittipaldi to sneak past from fourth and teammate Michael Andretti to grab the lead before the yellow was displayed.
After restarting on Lap 5, Penske Racing’s Paul Tracy spun in Turn 3 and brought out another yellow on Lap 9. After the Lap 11 restart, the green flag run would be short-lived again.
On Lap 15, Forsythe Racing rookie Greg Moore slammed the outside wall and skidded off course to a stop at the famed Canada Corner (Turn 12).
Just up the hill from Moore’s accident, Galles Racing’s Davy Jones flipped over in Turn 13. Both Moore and Jones walked away from their crashes under their own power.
The field reshuffled after pit stops under the yellow and Zanardi inherited the lead. Six laps later, the carnage continued. PacWest’s Mark Blundell and Tasman Racing’s Andre Ribeiro made contact in Canada Corner.
Blundell slowed and collided with teammate Mauricio Gugelmin, ending the race for all three drivers.
Unser Jr. took advantage of the continued calamity, which would also see Zanardi be assessed a stop-and-go penalty for stopping while the pits were closed.
As the race calmed down, the two-time CART champion continued to lead, seeking to end a winless streak dating back to the Vancouver race the year before.
Disaster nearly struck as pit stops began on Lap 34. Andretti almost collided with Vasser and Patrick Racing’s Scott Pruett, but still managed the fastest pit stop time. When Zanardi pitted on Lap 38 under yellow for Adrian Fernandez’s spin, Unser Jr. took over the lead.
After a restart with 10 to go in the 50-lap race, Unser Jr. pulled away and victory was all but certain. It would ultimately prove to not be Unser Jr.’s day.
The engine expired on his Penske-Mercedes with two corners left in the race. A final lap that began with a collision between Tracy and Comptech Racing’s Parker Johnstone that sent Johnstone flipping into the Turn 1 sand ended with Andretti taking the victory.
The Newman-Haas driver secured his fourth win of 1996 and third win at Road America, finishing .541 seconds ahead of Bobby Rahal.
Zanardi endured a wild day to finish third. Unser Jr., despite his misfortune, finished tenth was just 21 points back of Vasser in the standings. Zanardi trimmed his deficit to 27 points and Andretti was fourth, 29 back.
A frantic finish to a hectic race would help define the end of the 1996 CART season for several of the key players. Here’s a look at how things turned out for them after Road America.
Two weeks after his win at Road America, Andretti would dominate and triumph at Vancouver. A ninth-place finish at Laguna Seca would leave him 22 points behind Vasser in the final standings.
It would be the last top three points finish until 2000 for the 1991 champion. He would retire after the 2003 Indianapolis 500, competing again in the 2006 and 2007. After hanging up his helmet for good, the second-generation driver has enjoyed four IndyCar titles as an owner.
Zanardi would use a daring last lap pass of Bryan Herta to win the 1996 finale at Laguna Seca. The next year, he began one of the most dominant runs in recent memory. He earned 12 victories and won consecutive championships in 1997 and 98.
After an unsuccessful return to Formula 1 in 1999, he rejoined CART with Mo Nunn Racing in 2001.
At the Lausitzring in September, Zanardi led with 13 to go when he spun off pit road and collided with Alex Tagliani.
In the aftermath, both of Zanardi’s legs were amputated. Since then, he has become a four-time Paralympic gold medalist in cycling.
Al Unser Jr.
The frustrations for Unser Jr. would continue, as he would go winless in 1996, and each of the next three years.
In 2000, he joined the Indy Racing League. Teaming with Galles Racing, he earned his first win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in April.
He won two more times in the next three years and competed part-time from 2004 until the 2007 Indianapolis 500.
He is now employed as a driver coach for Harding Racing and driver Gabby Chaves and has even reunited with his popular Galles sponsor, Valvoline.
Header Image courtesy of Getty Images.