A FIttInG FINALE
MArLBoro 500, FONTANA 2001
the old-style Indy racing League
regularly served up close finishes, and
sam Hornish Jr. was perhaps its finest
exponent. He’s figured in eight of the
closest victory margins in Indy car
history and won six of them.
But even by his standards, the ’02
race at chicagoland was special, as he
edged Al Unser Jr. by just 0.0024sec
(BeLo W). It was the penultimate race
of the season and put the Panther
driver into the championship lead just
a week before the finale. Yet, despite
being in the title fight, not once did
Hornish think of settling for second in
the midst of a furious, but clean, scrap
over the race’s final 30 laps which
ended with the top 10 covered by
less than a second. that was no
consolation to Unser, who’d also been
first of the losers, to Jeff Ward, three
months earlier at texas by 0.0111sec….
t was the beginning of the end for CART.
Team Penske was about to switch to the
Indy Racing League, and Roger’s squad
would be swiftly followed by Target Chip
Ganassi Racing and Team Green (later
Andretti Green Racing). But before they
departed, these teams played a huge role
in a thrilling 2001 season for CART fans.
And an epic year deserves an epic finale
– which is precisely what we got at Auto
Club Speedway in Fontana.
With the championship settled in Gil
de Ferran’s favor at the previous round,
there was an end-of-semester feel as the
haulers rolled in to the two-mile oval.
In qualifying, the Ford and Toyota
engines appeared to have an edge, with
no Honda-powered car starting higher
than 12th. Up front, Alex Tagliani scored
the third pole of his career, with a
228mph lap in his Forsythe Reynard-Cosworth. Alongside him was the Newman/
Haas Racing Lola-Toyota of Cristiano
da Matta. But no one expected anyone to
run and hide; Fontana always had a habit
of creating “elastic” racing, and so there
were few competitors you could rule out.
ROAD RACING CAN
BE CLOSE, TOO…
But even the experts wouldn’t have
predicted 73 changes for the lead (a
record) between 19 different drivers.
Yes, 57 of the 220 laps were run under
caution, but even when the green flag
waved, no one could break away. The
cars’ turbulence-inducing Handford
Device produced a phenomenal draft
effect around the superspeedway, so that
everywhere the fans looked, there was
somebody passing someone.
Scan down the top
30 closest margins
of victory in Indy car
history and you’ll
that 29 of them
came on ovals.
The exception is
the 1997 CART
race at Portland,
when Mark Blundell
Gil de Ferran out
of the final turn
(BELOW) to win
by just 0.027sec.
In the final shootout, da Matta edged
the Team Rahal Lola-Cosworth of Max
Papis by little more than 0.1sec and
Tagliani by half a second. In fact, the
gap to Tony Kanaan in fifth was only
1.2sec, and the top 14 finishers were
covered by 11 seconds. Quite a race...
Michigan was another venue
guaranteed to produce multiple lead
changes. In 1998, Greg Moore held off
Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Jimmy Vasser
and Alex Zanardi by less than a second
at the end of a race in which there had
been 62 lead changes. Two years later,
Juan Montoya defeated Michael Andretti
in an epic duel after 52 lead changes.
But anyone who was there will point
out that lead changes are only recorded
at the start/finish line, and that there
were far more that day…
(LeFt) the Fontana
2001 podium. Alex
tagliani, cristiano da
Matta and Max Papis
finished about this
close on the track,
too. (toP) It looks like
a yellow flag lap or a
restart, but no, this is
how the racing was.
F. Pierce Williams/LAt
(ALMOST) A THREE-WAY TIE
When three points cover the top
three in a championship, you’re
talking evenly matched!
sam Hornish Jr. had won the title
twice for Panther, but was in his third
year with Penske; reigning champ Dan
Wheldon had left Andretti Green for
chip Ganassi; and Helio castroneves
was Penske’s two-time Indy 500
winner still seeking a series title.
the figures were close: all three
had finished 12 of the 14 rounds.
Wheldon was top in laps led, and
races led, but had converted only
two of them into wins, whereas
Hornish and castroneves had four
each. At season’s end, Hornish and
Wheldon had 475 points, and the tie
was broken by sam’s greater number
of wins, while castroneves amassed
473. no one could remember such
a tight three-way title fight.