Laguna Seca

Race No. 17

Honda Grand Prix of Monterey
September 10-12 1999

SpeedCenter Rearview Mirror:

1996 Pole Winner: Alex Zanardi
1997 Pole Winner: Bryan Herta
1998 Pole Winner: Bryan Herta
1999 Pole Winner: Bryan Herta

1996 Race Winner: Alex Zanardi
1997 Race Winner: Jimmy Vasser
1998 Race Winner: Bryan Herta
1999 Race Winner: Bryan Herta

1996 SpeedCenter Report
1997 SpeedCenter Report
1998 SpeedCenter Report

  Real Audio updates from the track
Herta Wins Race Overshadowed by Tragedy

By Greg Spotts

Team owner Bobby Rahal jubilantly crowned Bryan Herta "the King of Laguna Seca" as Herta took the checkered flag for the second consecutive year at the northern California race course on Sunday. Herta's ongoing mastery of the Laguna course had the competition shaking their heads once again, as Roberto Moreno finished second and Herta's teammate Max Papis was third, marking a season-best performance for all three drivers and career bests for both Moreno and Papis. Ironically, both Herta and Moreno are seeking employment next season, with Herta unlikely to be re-signed by Team Rahal and Moreno hoping to upgrade from Supersub to full-timer.

Herta started from the pole and led every lap of the race. Collecting the maximum bounty of 22 championship points, Herta leapfrogged over several drivers into 12th in the standings, in prime contention for an automatic entry in the Hawaiian Super Prix. Herta has never started worse than second position at Laguna Seca, and has achieved victories in CART, IndyLights and Barber Pro Dodge at the track.

The uneventful race was overshadowed by a bizarre accident in which rookie driver Gonzalo Rodriguez lost his life during the Saturday morning warmup. The Shell 300 at Laguna Seca was to be Gonzalo's second career start in the Fedex Championship Series, having made his CART debut for Team Penske at Detroit one month ago. The Uruguayan driver finished 12th in that race, the same race at which Roger Penske announced his driver lineup of Greg Moore and Gil de Ferran for the 2000 season. Although Mr. Penske had no ride to offer Gonzalo for next year, he gave the twenty-seven year old Formula 3000 veteran a second opportunity to drive a champcar at Laguna Seca.

Gonzalo's accident was the first racing fatality in the history of the Laguna Seca Raceway, and it occurred in the signature corkscrew turn that has made this dusty track a favorite for both fans and drivers. According to eyewitnesses, Gonzalo crested the hill that approaches turn eight at top speed. Rather than decelerating in preparation for the blind downhill left-right-left of the corkscrew, Gonzalo's Mercedes-Lola-Goodyear rocketed to the right across the gravel trap, traveled through a tire barrier and slammed into the concrete retaining wall with an impact that was reported to be in excess of 150 g's.

Upon impact, the rear of the red and white car rotated upwards and the car was launched into the air, flying over the tall billboards marking the course perimeter and landing upside down on a grassy slope below. It appeared that the accident was caused by a stuck throttle or a brake failure, since no driver, even a rookie new to the course, could possibly intend on approaching the corkscrew with such velocity. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Gonzalo was killed instantly upon impact with the concrete wall, possibly because his body was thrown forward agains the dash by the extreme force of the collision.

The accident was the third driver fatality in the twenty-two year history of CART, the most recent being another airborne crash that took the life of Jeff Krosnoff at Toronto in 1996. As a sign of respect to Gonzalo, his family and his friends, the drivers agreed to let Friday's qualification times stand, creating an eerie silent tribute as the green flag waved for the afternoon qualifying session without a single car leaving pit lane.

The absence of a second round of qualifying had major championship implications, forcing points leader Juan Montoya to start in 16th position and his rival Dario Franchitti in 12th. Franchitti created the only significant action of the first half of the race when he attempted to pass Greg Moore for P7 in the first turn of lap 31. Franchitti picked up four positions in the early stages of the race, and had been following Moore around the track for a few laps looking for an angle. In a similarly over eager move to the one that took him out of last week's race in Vancouver, Franchitti dived down the inside of the hairpin, and in an instant Moore cut across Franchitti's nose, taking both drivers out of the race. Had Franchitti shown the patience of a champion, he would likely have finished sixth or better, whittling away Montoya's lead by a few precious points.

Second-year driver Tony Kanaan pressured Herta in the first half of the race, but the failure of a small chassis part forced him to park his Honda-Reynard on lap 41. Once Kanaan had retired, fans were surely hoping for a reprise of the Shell/Target battles of recent years, in which Bryan Herta and Alex Zanardi staged spectacular duels for the lead. But this year's Target marauder Montoya was hobbled by an unstable car and was barely able to maintain position, slowly moving up by attrition. Montoya picked up 5 points for finishing eighth, which extended his championship lead on Franchitti to 28.

The most dramatic lap of the race occurred on the lap 61 restart. A pair of spins by Robbie Gordon had brought out and then extended a caution period about two-thirds of the way through the race, and all the leaders had taken the opportunity to make their second and final pit stop. As the refueled field circled the track behind the pace car, the order was Herta, Andretti, Papis, Moreno, Vasser, Tracy, de Ferran and Montoya.

The pace car pulled off and Herta led the field through the final turns towards the start-finish line for the green flag. Anxious to get a jump on the competition, Herta came into the final turn with a big head of steam and locked up the brakes. In Herta's words:

"I know Michael, and he is just a bulldog, and I knew that if he had a shot on the first lap he was going to try it. So I was trying to get a good gap on him and just got a little too deep into the corner. When we came out of the corner the guys got a run on Mike, which took some of the pressure off of me."

In hindsight it appears that Andretti would have been better served pulling alongside the slowing Herta and likely causing a wave-off of the restart, but Andretti followed the spirit of the rules slowed down to stay behind the leader. The field bunched up in an accordion effect, and suddenly it was Andretti who was under fire for his position as third-place Max Papis pulled alongside Andretti when the green flag waved.

Andretti's teammate Moreno was running fourth as the confusion unfolded ahead of him. "For some reason the guys in front of me came out of the corner slow so I got a good run on them. I didn't understand what was happening exactly. I saw two cars side by side and I went on the inside of Michael and Max, who went a little low, and managed to get by them."

Andretti, furious about losing two positions in a blink of an eye, was determined not to fall further back, and stomped on the accelerator. Fifth-place Jimmy Vasser challenged Andretti at the next turn, and their cars made contact, spinning out Andretti as Vasser continued onward. But it was Vasser who got the worse end of the deal, forced to retire with a smashed-up radiator while Andretti was able to keep the engine running and pull back onto the track undamaged.

The season-long dysfunctional radio banter between Team Rahal owner and driver resumed during the final ten laps of the race, as three-time champion Bobby Rahal exhorted, cajoled, pleaded, encouraged, and practically begged his driver Bryan Herta not to blow it. At times this season Herta has sounded like a whiny child and Rahal the exasperated mother, and one couldn't help but think that even in victory both of them might be better served trying something different next season.

Herta completed the race without incident or complaint, finishing more than a second ahead of Moreno, who was trailed by Papis, Tracy, Fernandez, de Ferran, Pruett, Montoya, Carpentier and Andretti. The Shell crew doused their driver with a large cooler of water as he emerged from the car in victory lane, and Herta's teammate Papis showered him with on-camera kisses. Every single driver that was interviewed had kind words for their fallen colleague and his family, and the traditional podium champagne spray was replaced by a respectful toast in honor of Gonzalo Rodriguez, who will never get a chance to show the world what his talent and potential might have been.


1) Juan Montoya now leads Dario Franchitti in the points standings by 199 to 171 with three races remaining. Franchitti will need to win a race in which Montoya does not score points in order to have much hope of taking the PPG Cup home to Scotland. Paul Tracy currently sits in third with 134 followed closely by Michael Andretti with 127. A cluster of drivers sits in positions five to ten, with Adrian Fernandez and Max Papis tied at 105, Gil de Ferran at 104, Christian Fittipaldi at 101, Greg Moore at 97, and Jimmy Vasser at 94. All ten drivers are pretty much assured of making the Hawaiian Super Prix. The final two automatic entries to the $5,000,000 island showdown will be hotly contested between Tony Kanaan, who has 68 points, Bryan Herta with 62, Patrick Carpentier with 61, and Roberto Moreno with 58.

2) Injury Update: Adrian Fernandez showed true grit as he returned to the Champcar circuit for the first time since injuring his right wrist at Detroit. Fernandez finished fifth on a very demanding circuit steering and shifting with a right arm that was significantly weakened from a lack of use during his recouperation. Christian Fittipaldi, recovering from a head injury suffered in practice several months ago, said he was 50/50 about his ability to enter the next race at Houston, awaiting clearance from CART's medical team. Admirers around the paddock are hoping that Christian's substitute, Roberto Moreno, might be able to find some other ride at the remaining three races in the event that Christian is able to retake his seat, so that Moreno can compete for an slot in the HSP.

3) Engine Triumph, Engine Trouble: Ford enjoyed their second podium sweep of the season on Sunday, while Honda clinched the Manufacturer's championship once again. Toyota, on the other hand, has yet to score their first podium finish, and does not appear to have much more momentum than at this time last year. With Ford's next generation engine getting rave reviews in testing, the competition will only get tougher for Toyota.

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