This week on IndyCar Flashback we take a look at a race that marked the end of an era for American open-wheel racing on superspeedway ovals: 2002’s edition of “The 500 presented by Toyota” at California Speedway.
The race featured all the elements that make 500-mile races and superspeedways such an integral part of open-wheel racing: speed, competition, intensity and drama. Here’s a look back at that race more than 15 years later, and how the course of history has run since then.
Vasser Powers Past Andretti for Record-Setting Win
After a wild racer in Surfers Paradise, the CART FedEx Championship Series traveled to Fontana, California for The 500. A race that in just five prior iterations had become notorious for mind-boggling speeds and constant wheel-to-wheel action, 2002 would be more of the same.
Tony Kanaan grabbed the pole for Mo Nunn racing with a lap time of 31.463(232.011 MPH). Once the race began, Kanaan would not be able to hang onto the top spot for long, though. Team Green’s Michael Andretti stormed from fourth on the grid and took the top spot for the first eight laps, while Kanaan would take over for three laps after Andretti’s early lead.
Andretti and Kanaan would be joined early on by Team Rahal’s Jimmy Vasser, the 1998 California winner, and Andretti’s Team Green teammates Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti. The five drivers would swap the lead 24 times over the first 75 laps, with only a four-lap yellow flag following Bruno Junqueira’s lost wheel slowing the race.
Vasser would showcase the speed of his Lola-Ford when he led from lap 76 to lap 98. After Kanaan led lap 99, Vasser took over and led 32 more laps, just as his teammate Michel Jourdain Jr. and Team Players’ Alex Tagliani would both spin off of pit road in separate incidents, both drivers would continue on.
Vasser’s dominance in the race would be somewhat challenged by Jourdain on lap 132, who would lead for 10 of the next 70 laps, with Franchitti’s six being the only others not led by Vasser in that span. Jourdain Jr., seeking his first career win, would fade away with a blown engine on lap 218.
Meanwhile, defending race winner and new series champion Cristiano da Matta would make his way to the top spot, battling with Vasser and Franchitti over the next 40 laps.
The luck that had propelled da Matta during the past year would not come through during the race. With 15 laps to go, the Toyota engine in his Lola let go and knocked him out of the race.
Two laps after the restart, Andretti again inherited the top spot, but another engine failure, this time on Franchitti’s Lola-Honda, put a pause on the action. Not wanting to end the race under yellow, CART officials displayed the red flag in attempt to preserve a green flag finish the fans had been denied of the previous year.
Following the yellow, a two-lap battle to the finish was set up. Andretti led the way but was passed in turn 1 by Vasser with two to go. Vasser, who paced the field for 148 laps, pulled away and won the race by .400 seconds over Andretti. Team Player’s Patrick Carpentier, Kanaan and Patrick Racing’s Oriol Servia would complete the top five.
Vasser would win the race with an average speed of 197.995 MPH (using the CART-measured race distance of 507.25 miles), smashing Al Unser Jr.’s record from the 1990 Michigan 500 by more than 8 MPH. Vasser’s record would stand until 2014, when Juan Pablo Montoya won the Pocono 500 with an average speed of 202.402 MPH.
Although The 500 was the penultimate race on the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series schedule, the race marked the end of several eras. Here’s a look at some of the big headlines from that day.
With victory, Vasser became the first driver to win at California Speedway multiple times and notched his tenth career victory. The 1996 series champion would move on from Team Rahal following the 2003 Indianapolis 500.
The California native would run the 2003 ChampCar season with American Spirit Team Johansson. The next year, he ventured into forming his own team with Kevin Kalkhoven and Dan Pettit in 2004. Vasser stepped away from driving duties following appearances in the 2006 and 2008 Long Beach Grand Prix, but remained involved with KV Racing.
The team would win the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with Tony Kanaan behind the wheel before closing in 2016. This year, Vasser and business partner James Sullivan have partnered with Dale Coyne Racing’s No . 18 entry for Sebastien Bourdais, who won four races with the team from 2014 to 2016.
Andretti would move Team Green to the IRL in 2003, retiring after the 2003 Indianapolis 500. In 2006, Michael would return to compete with son Marco in for the next two Indianapolis 500’s, then would hang up his helmet for good to focus on his ownership role. Andretti’s teams have won six 500-mile races since he has become an owner, including five at Indianapolis.
Changes in the Series
The 2003 race at California Speedway would be cancelled, meaning the 2002 edition would be the last race for the Hanford Device. The superspeedway wing’s last race was another spectacular showing, producing 44 lead changes among seven drivers.
The Ganassi and Rahal teams would also depart for the Indy Racing League after the season, Toyota and Honda also departed for the IRL, leaving Ford-Cosworth as the sole engine supplier for what would become known as ChampCar the following year.
The 2002 California 500 would also mark the last 500-mile race contested outside of the Indianapolis 500 until its return to the schedule in 2012. The IRL races contested at the track from 2002 to 2005 would be run as 400-mile events.
A thrilling race that also represented a shift in the open-wheel racing landscape in America, 2002’s The 500 has its own legacy in the story of open-wheel racing.