©1997 SpeedCenter Internet Publishing, Inc.
68,454 fans were on-hand to witness one of the most exciting races of the '97 season, courtesy of pole sitter Alex Zanardi. Even the first-time win of "Big Mo" Gugelmin was nearly overshadowed by Zanardi's aggressive performance. Alex twice returned to the top five after falling back in the pack following two separate incidents when he was forced to use the run-off area at the hairpin. His return to the front after the second mishap led to aggressive driving for which he was levied a $25,000 fine and a two-race probation for bunting driver Bryan Herta out of the race in the final laps of the race.
The entire weekend seemed to be a sure clinch of the championship for Zanardi. He was fastest on all practice and qualifying sessions, but race conditions proved to test the Italian's patience beyond control.
"I drove one of the most aggressive races of my life on a day that maybe I should have driven conservatively," Zanardi said.
Herta wasn't quite so amused..."He uses the rest of the field as pinballs," Herta said. "It's ridiculous. He thinks he owns this series."
Gil de Ferran was also "threatened" by the force of Zanardi. "I looked back and thought he was far enough away that I didn't have to worry about him [on turn No. 3]," de Ferran said. "Then I looked on turn No. 3 and saw this red thing coming a million miles an hour."
Gugelmin expressed his race winning sentiments clearly:
"The hardest thing has been the amount of people who keep asking you, 'When are you going to win your first race,' " Gugelmin said. "With seven laps to go, I started thinking 'I can really win this thing.' Those seven laps felt like a month and a half. I feel like I shook a 40-pound monkey off my back."
Even though the race-day attendance of the Molson Indy Vancouver was the second-lowest total in the eight years of the event, the three-day total was fairly impressive. 43,000 plus on Friday, 50,000 plus on Saturday, with a three day total of 161,627 including the 68,000 plus on Sunday.
Next year will mark the beginning of a new era for the event. New course maps were distributed, and the track length will extend by approximately one-mile. One long straight-away promises speeds in excess of 200mph.
De Ferran now remains the only driver with a mathematical chance to catch Zanardi, with only two races remaining. Last year's Grand Prix of Monterey at the Laguna Seca Raceway, celebrating it's 40th anniversary this year, proved the first real look at Zanardi's aggressive nature. It was also his first encounter with Bryan Herta, when, on the last lap of the race, Zanardi found an infamous short cut through the off-track area of the corkscrew. The move was deemed legal by CART officials, and Zanardi went on to win the race.
This year, Alex will have to approach Laguna Seca a bit differently, with probation looming against the chance of overly aggressive driving. But, as we have seen in the past two instances where probation was levied against drivers, Zanardi's chances for the championship would seem even more secure. Michael Andretti, penalized following Long Beach in '96, and Paul Tracy, penalized following Long Beach this year, both answered probation imposition by winning the following respective races, and Tracy went on to win the next three!
The PPG CART World Series continues next Sunday with the Toyota Grand Prix of Monterey featuring the Texaco/Havoline 300 from Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. The event will be televised live on ESPN at 3:00 pm EDT on Sunday, September 7. May we be spared ESPN's flurry of commercials of late!