Thank you to everyone who voted in the latest IndyCar Flashback Twitter poll! This week’s winner is the 1997 Indy 200 at Disney World, a race that initiated a dramatic shift in open-wheel racing in America.
Cheever Jr. Holds on For First Win
Although it would count as the third race in the 1996-97 Indy Racing League season, the 1997 contest at Walt Disney World Speedway would be the first race for a revamped series. Gone were the Reynard, Lola and Penske chassis that dominated for much of the previous decade. The cars on the grid for this race would be manufactured by Dallara and G-Force.
Equally as noticeable, the turbocharged engines that had become IndyCar’s signature sound would also cease. The new engines would be 4.0-liter, naturally-aspirated V8 engines, produced by Infiniti and Oldsmobile.
The race weekend would get off to a terrible start, as 1996 Indianapolis 500 runner-up Davy Jones was involved in a horrific wreck. Jones would eventually recover from his injuries, but the Galles Racing driver was replaced by rookie Jeff Ward.
On the pole for the 200-mile race would be Team Menard’s Tony Stewart. Stewart, who finished runner-up in the series’ inaugural race at Walt Disney World, was still searching for his first career win. Alongside Stewart on the front row would be 1990 Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk.
As had become commonplace in the first handful of IRL events, Stewart dominated from pole, leading the first 130 laps of the event. The race ran cleanly until just before halfway, as Luyendyk and Jeret Schroeder would bring out the first caution when Schroeder spun in turn 1 and Luyendyk slowed to avoid him, but spun into the infield. Both drivers would be done for the day.
Racing resumed eight laps later and Stewart continued to dominate before relinquishing the lead on lap 131 for a pit stop. The lead would go to the 1996 winner at Walt Disney World and co-series champion Buzz Calkins. Calkins would lead the field for the next 16 laps and looked set to defend his victory from the previous year.
The repeat would not come to fruition though, as the Bradley Motorsports driver lost the engine in his G-Force/Aurora machine. Calkins’ issues would be followed almost immediately by Stewart spinning and making contact with the wall near the start/finish line. Stewart, whose crash was caused by an oil leak trailing to the rear of the car, would have to wait for his chance at victory.
Taking advantage of his competition’s misfortunes, Eddie Cheever Jr. inherited the lead as the yellow flag turned red with a major downpour hitting the track. After 149 laps, the owner-driver would be declared the winner and following 87 career starts, the former Formula 1 racer finally had his first IndyCar win.
Finishing second would be Byrd-Cunningham Racing’s Mike Groff, with Scott Goodyear, Scott Sharp and Buddy Lazier rounding out the top five. Stewart and Calkins would finish tenth and eleventh in the 19-car field.
Although the Indy Racing League began one year prior, the 1997 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway can be pinpointed as the race that CART and IRL became two separate series in the wake of the controversial split. Here’s a look at how things transpired for some of the biggest factors in that race.
Eddie Cheever Jr.
With the milestone of his first career win out of the way, Cheever would go on to achieve continued success in the IRL over the next handful of years. The crowning achievement of his career would be winning the 1998 Indianapolis 500. The Arizona native would add 3 additional race wins to his resume before shifting his focus to the ownership side of his team in 2002.
That year, rookie Tomas Scheckter would win in a Cheever team car at Michigan International Speedway, resulting in the owner’s first and last win as a team. In 2006, after Cheever returned part-time, the team ceased operations. Since 2008, Cheever has worked for ABC/ESPN as a color analyst for its IndyCar races.
The heartbreak at Walt Disney World would be followed up by three straight top-five finishes, including a second at Phoenix in March of that year. In the June 29 race at Pikes Peak, Stewart’s luck turned around. The Indiana native led 193 laps and collected his first victory. He would beat out Davey Hamilton to win the series championship that year.
After two wins and a third-place finish in the final standings 1998 IRL season, Stewart shifted to NASCAR. In 1999, he would become the third driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coca-Cola 600 double and in 2001, was the first to complete all 1100 miles, finishing sixth at Indianapolis and third at Charlotte in the same day.
IRL Engine/Chassis Formula
Despite many long-time open-wheel racing fans lamenting the IRL’s choice to do away with turbocharged engines, they would remain in place until 2012, with only the size changed (down to 3.5 liters and later 3.0 liters).
The G-Force chassis that carried Cheever to victory would stay in competition until 2005, winning four Indianapolis 500s and two series championships.
Dallara would win for the first time in Indy Racing League the next race, when Jim Guthrie took home the victory at Phoenix. In 1998, the manufacturer celebrated their first Indianapolis 500 win with Cheever behind the wheel.
By 2007, all cars on the grid would be made by the Italian automaker, which will roll out a new aero kit on its fourth-generation chassis when the IndyCar Series heads to the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 11.
The 1997 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World has become an important race in IndyCar history, setting the stage for some new stars to take center stage in the early years of the series.
Image courtesy of INDYCAR Media.