Vasser Claims PPG Crown
By Jim DeFord
MONTEREY, Calif. (Sept. 9, 1996) - It was on the white-flag lap and Herta had held off Zanardi lap after lap in a race that had become a game of follow the leader.
Going into 8a at the top of the corkscrew Herta took his normal line and left open an opportunity for Alex that he will not soon forget. Zanardi outbraked Herta going into the turn and it looked as though the two would touch as Herta started to turn-in for 8b, but held off when he saw Zanardi zoom by.
"I went a little wide and slid out a little on the last lap," Herta said. "Alex caught me totally by surprise. I didnít even expect to see him and was very surprised when he came up next to me. I didnít even expect him to try. When he did, there wasnít much I could do. This is very difficult to take, and not just for me. The guys on our team have worked hard all year and our sponsor Shell has been great, and they deserved to win a race this year."
But Alex was performing his own personal version of the corkscrew as he launched his Reynard-Honda up and over the FIA curbing and onto the apron at 8b. He made the apex with two tires in the dirt and then bounded over the curbing once again before re-entering the actual racing surface.
"This is incredible," Zanardi boasted. "I was faster than Bryan (Herta) the last 15 laps but couldnít get around him. On the last lap, there was a lot of dirt on the course and I took the turns really tight to avoid that. Bryan seemed to take it a little more carefully. Then I was able to close a bit and saw an opportunity."
"He (Herta) didnít expect me to pass because the course is up and down and you canít see there. It was very risky, but well worth the risk. As a result, Iím here smiling and he (Herta) is not smiling as much."
Some people have coined this the pass of the year, but it could have easily cost both drivers the race had Herta not seen Zanardi at the last second. I would have also cost Zanardi the rest of his $40K fine that was issued at Road America.
But, that was not to be. A shocked Bryan Herta followed Alex Zanardi as they took the checkered flag with Herta once again losing out at the last second, as he did when Zanardi snagged the pole from Bryan on the very last lap of final qualifying on Saturday.
Herta was terribly disappointed on losing the pole as his father watched in disbelief, and then the race itself proved a repeat of that disappointment. But, Bryan will be back in 1997 and you can bet that he will be there, right at the top, fighting tooth and nail for the 1997 IndyCar Championship.
Also, on the last lap, Vasser was beginning to suffer handling problems and was easily passed by Scott Pruett who secured himself a spot on the podium.
"I would like to congratulate Jimmy for winning the PPG Cup Championship," Pruett commented. "He had a great year. Jimmy got into the marbles in Turn 1, and once you do that, you pick up a lot of debris. I was able to catch and pass him in Turn 4. It was really uneventful, nothing like what Alex and Bryan went through. Weíre happy to end the season on a good note. It was a good day for Patrick Racing and Firestone."
But, the really big news is that Target-Ganassi driver, Jimmy Vasser, finally held the coveted PPG Cup high in the air as he was crowned 1996 IndyCar Champion in what was the closest championship in CART history.
"Iím very, very happy," said an overly-jubilant Vasser. "This was our goal at the beginning of the season. We were consistent, and thatís what it takes to win the season. Itís also a tribute to our team. We finished all the races. [The only driver to do so] Itís a great feeling to be the PPG Cup champion. This is obviously the best day of my racing career."
The race was really uneventful until that last lap. Tracy took an off-road excursion early in the race and had enough contact with the wall at turn 5 to take him out of the race. Stephan Johansson, in his last race for team-owner Bettenhausen, lost a rear-wing and went off very hard into the tires in turn 2, but was okay.
"The car spun around so quickly I thought something had seized," Stephan said. "It wasnít until I walked back to the pits that I learned from my crew that the rear wing had fallen off. The car spun and I actually had time to think that it was good I was heading for the sand trap. Unfortunately, the car seemed to take off when I hit the sand and then I hit the wall. Iím a little sore, but Iím fine. Iím sorry that we couldnít have had a better result since this was my last race with this team."
Other than that, most of the passing was done in the pits and then it was playing "follow the driver in front of you" until the next pitstop.
As these drivers are so extremely close in qualifying it really becomes difficult for them to be able to make a pass stick without making a banzai-move such as Zanardi pulled on Herta.
So, there you have it racefans, the 1996 IndyCar season is now complete but the work never stops for the teams. Most of the teams will begin immediate testing and preparing for 1997, and SpeedCenter will keep you appraised of the developments as they are made public, so stay tuned for the lastest!