The release of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was highlighted by the return of Portland International Raceway. After a 10-year absence, the 1.9-mile road course will return to host IndyCar on September 2.
Throughout its 24-race IndyCar history, Portland played host several memorable moments. This week for IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at the 1997 race, an event featuring a battle against the weather, dueling strategies and a thrilling finish that gave CART another first time winner.
Recap: Blundell Charges to First Win
Like the 1996 race at Portland, the 1997 race began with weather demanding attention. The scheduled 98-lap race was started with teams utilizing the rain tires provided by Firestone and Goodyear. Firestone, who struggled during the previous year’s race, asserted their dominance early on in the running.
Polesitter Scott Pruett put his Patrick Racing Ford-Reynard on the pole with a track record speed of 119.246 MPH. Pruett led the first four laps, but was quickly overtaken by PacWest’s Mauricio Gugelmin.
Gugelmin, who ran out of fuel while leading on the last lap two weeks earlier at Belle Isle, was looking for redemption from the previous race and his first career win. The Brazilian would lead the next 26 laps in his Mercedes-powered Reynard.
After two cautions for debris and rain in the first 30 laps, attrition began to take its toll on the field. A handful of cars had spun out early on in the race, but none yielding a caution flag. On lap 32 the yellow flew for the stopped car of Christian Danner, and shortly after, Dario Franchitti and Al Unser Jr. were taken out of the race in a crash.
Portland 1996 race-winner and championship leader Alex Zanardi would pry the lead away from Gugelmin shortly before the accident and hold the top spot for 23 laps.
Two more cautions would fly in that time for separate spins – one involving Pruett, and another involving Bryan Herta, Gualter Salles and P.J. Jones. Jones would bring out the final caution of the day one lap later after another spin.
With the track drying throughout the day, rain became less of a factor but the decision still loomed for teams regarding tire selection.
Gugelmin would assume the lead briefly before the last caution. PacWest teammate Mark Blundell would overtake Gugelmin 12 laps later. After a difficult result the previous week, Blundell came into the race looking for redemption and his first win.
The British driver – also running PacWest’s one-stop strategy at Detroit – would run out of fuel two corners before the finish and watch as Forsythe’s Greg Moore won his second straight race.
In Portland, Blundell’s team would again employ a bold pit strategy.
Despite surrendering the lead to Walker Racing’s Gil de Ferran and watching others who had switched to slicks struggle, Blundell remained committed to the strategy. De Ferran, who was still on the Goodyear rain tires, paced the field for the next 11 laps while Blundell was forced to work his way back to the front.
With CART’s mandated two-hour time limit closing in, the race was shortened from its scheduled 98 laps to a new distance of 78 laps.
Now working against the clock, Blundell fought his way back to the front. Heading out of the final corner and on to the front straightaway, Blundell had caught up to de Ferran, with two joined by Patrick Racing’s Raul Boesel at the finish.
Blundell nosed in front of the two at the line, scoring his first career win by .027 seconds over de Ferran and .055 seconds ahead Boesel, the closest 1-2 and 1-2-3 finish in CART history.
The finish remains the closest on a road course in any IndyCar racing series.
After previous heartbreaks, the second-year driver and fifth-year team finally had their first career win.
The 1997 Budweiser/G.I. Joe’s 200 will certainly be remembered for the three-wide finish, but the race also serves as memorable for a few other reasons.
Here’s a look at the lasting history of some of the race’s biggest headlines.
After enduring a rookie campaign in 1996 marred by an injury at Rio, PacWest’s 1997 breakout was headed by the efforts of Blundell.
Wins at Toronto and the season finale in California would punctuate a spectacular year for the ex-Formula One driver. Unfortunately for the British driver, Blundell would not find victory lane again and later departed for sports cars following the 2000 season.
Blundell now is CEO of MB Partners, which represents drivers such as IndyCar winner Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter Racing’s 2018 road and street course specialist Jordan King.
The 1997 breakout season was not exclusive to Blundell. His PacWest Racing teammate Mauricio Gugelmin would also make his first trip to the winners circle that year on the streets of Vancouver in September.
The next three years would prove winless for the team.
In 2001, Blundell was replaced by New Zealand driver and future IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. Dixon won at Nazareth in April of his rookie season in what proved to be the team’s final trip to victory lane, and that season would be their last full-time venture in open-wheel racing.
Gugelmin retired after the 2001 season and was replaced by Oriol Servia. Dixon would move on to Chip Ganassi Racing, as the team closed its doors four races into the 2002 season. After the season, owner Bruce McCaw sold the team to Kevin Kalkhoven and Craig Pollock, operating as KV Racing from 2003 to 2016.
Gil de Ferran
Gil de Ferran would finish second in the 1997 championship standings. The Portland win that eluded him in 1997 would be redeemed in 1999 with Walker Racing. In 2000, the Brazilian would move to Penske Racing, where he would again triumph at Portland and won two consecutive CART championships in 2000 and 2001, while also winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2003 before retiring later that year.
After extensive testing, Firestone dominated the race in Portland under wet conditions. Cars utilizing their tires would lead 67 of 78 laps.
Firestone, who returned in 1995 after a twenty-year absence, won four championships in CART and two in the Indy Racing League before becoming the exclusive tire manufacturer in north American open-wheel competition in 2000.
The 1997 Budweiser/G.I. Joe’s 200 finish was perhaps the greatest road course finish in IndyCar history, and with the return of the series for 2018, the chance for the track to host more great memories looms.
Race broadcast courtesy of IndyCar, with images courtesy of IndyCar and John Oreovicz