In continuing with our first entry in the “IndyCar Flashback” series on the 1986 Indianapolis 500, we’ll take a look at another memorable IndyCar race, the 1998 U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway. The always-interesting race had a few more twists, which would help cement its legacy as one of the most memorable of all time.
The first 500-mile race of the 1998 CART FedEx Championship Season, the U.S. 500 received a technological innovation that added to the event’s intrigue.
The Hanford Device, a spoiler added to the rear wing, added drag and decreased downforce. The result was a sizable increase in trap speeds (ABC Broadcast reported 247 MPH, an estimated 10-12 MPH above normal) and an even bigger slipstream (drafting effect).
ABC’s prerace broadcast showed cars in practice experiencing slipstreams from as much as half a straightaway between two cars. The slipstream factor also gave the drivers two added gear options. Instead of running the normal top gear throughout the race, two gears were added for usage in drafting behind one and multiple cars respectively. The anticipation was for a frantic race, with multiple lead changes per lap being the possible norm.
On the pole for the race was Motegi winner Adrian Fernandez, looking to secure the Marlboro Bonus for winning from his first career pole. The number ballooned to $400,000 over the course of the season without a victor.
Experience proved to be a big factor early on in the race, as former Michigan 500 winners Jimmy Vasser, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti led 58 of the race’s first 65 laps. During this time, Andretti would lead laps 38 to 65, the longest stretch any one driver would lead during the day, even more impressive was the fact that this was done without caution.
In fact, most of the race was run without major incident, as all four crash-related cautions were single-car incidents.
Unfortunately, as is the case with high speed races, the slightest issue can turn into a disaster, as Adrian Fernandez found out. On lap 176 Fernandez smacked the wall, an impact so hard one of his tires would clear the catch fence and enter the grandstands. Three people would be killed and six others injured as a result. Despite the crash, racing would resume.
The Ganassi dominance of 1998 would continue late into the race, this time with defending race winner and points leader Alex Zanardi pacing the field as the race reached its final laps. Zanardi would near Andretti’s stretch, as he spent 22 laps up front.
Vasser took back the lead on lap 225, with the Ganassi teammates swapping the lead seven times over the next 22 laps. Three laps after a late restart, Moore took back over the lead, and after Vasser lead the penultimate lap, Moore pulled away and beat Vasser by .253 seconds, with Zanardi in third. The race featured a record 63 lead changes, the most in an INDYCAR race until the 2001 Marlboro 500 at California Speedway.
In reviewing the race’s legacy, we will take a look at who and what made the 1998 U.S. 500 memorable and its place in history 20 years later.
Primarily responsible for the race’s success, the Hanford Device would be utilized for CART’s superspeedway races from 1998-2002, seeing time at Michigan and California, a track slightly flatter than Michigan but with otherwise similar characteristics.
Another question that arises from the infamous CART/Indy Racing League (IRL) split of the mid-90s is could the Hanford Device have been used for the Indianapolis 500. Following the 1996 split, the IRL began diverting from CART’s chassis/engine combinations in 1997.
As proven with the last six years of DW-12 races, Indianapolis has been a fantastic place for drafting and perhaps could have given that in droves with the Hanford Device. Fans of the era have something to look forward to in 2018, with drivers like James Hinchcliffe reporting that closing rates are similar to the 1990s cars after tests at Indianapolis and Texas Motor Speedway.
The winner of the race, Canada’s Greg Moore earned his second win of 1998 and fourth of his career.
Moore would win the season opener at Homestead in 1999, but a horrifying accident in the season finale at California Speedway that season would take his life. It has been well documented that Moore was set to inherit a ride at Penske Racing in 2000, a year which would wind up being the team’s step back to the top of CART competition.
The success of Helio Castroneves has led many to speculate that Moore could have had the same, if not more Indianapolis 500 victories than Castroneves’ three, as well as multiple titles (Gil de Ferran won the CART titles in 2000 and 2001).
In just four years in the series, Moore became a favorite among fans and drivers. His friendly personality, remarkable driving feats and signature red gloves have helped preserve a memorable legacy nearly 20 years after his passing.
Chip Ganassi Racing
The duo of Vasser and Zanardi were among the most dominant in open-wheel history, winning three championships from 1996-1998. When Zanardi left the team to return to Formula 1, his replacement, Juan Pablo Montoya won the 1999 CART title as a rookie and won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in Ganassi’s return to the race.
Vasser would run with Ganassi until 2001, spending a total of eight seasons and winning nine of his ten career victories with the team. Ganassi and Penske’s dominance in the late years of CART before returning to IRL leaves yet another question mark caused by the split as to how each team would have fared with the star drivers of 1998 remaining in the fold.
The Fernandez Crash
Adrian Fernandez’s crash on lap 176 that resulted in the deaths of three fans and injuries to six more, received national criticism after CART officials decided to continue with the race.
Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reily panned CART’s decision to move on with the proceedings, even as the deaths were announced on television. The following year’s race, while still exciting, featured a noticeable dip in attendance.
By 2002, CART’s Michigan race was dumped in favor of the IRL, which itself had an incident at Charlotte in 1999 resulting in multiple fan deaths. Although the decline of the Michigan 500 can be traced to many factors, a lack of safety from the fan perspective is never a positive.
The 1998 U.S. 500 was lauded as one of the greatest open-wheel races in history. With an incredible on-track product and some memorable personalities, the race was destined to be a springboard for CART to stay ahead of its rival Indy Racing League in the aftermath of the split.
Fate, unfortunately for the series, would not have it that way.
Image of Al Unser Jr. courtesy of Brian Cleary