The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach; a learning experience battling through attrition. The first half of the race was consumed with caution flags and bad mistakes. The second half of the race saw some impressive driving and pit skills on the part of the crews from both veterans and rookies alike. Could it be blamed on the rainy practice sessions brought on by the now-clichéd El Nino? Certainly didn’t effect track conditions for race day, but maybe something was still in the air.
Qualifying saw Team Rahal place both it’s drivers on the first row with Bryan Herta taking the pole. Impressively, Gualtar Salles, subbing for the injured Dennis Vitolo, placed the number 34 car of Payton-Coyne racing on the outside of row two. But when it was time to take the green flag, it was no holds barred entering turns one through three.
Michael Andretti was charging hard, trying to get his Texaco Havoline Swift Ford around Bobby Rahal’s Miller Lite Reynard Ford, but instead Andretti ran into the back of the number 40 Tecate Reynard Ford car of Adrian Fernandez. This forced Andretti to take turn two wide while slamming the door closed on the number 20 Visteon Reynard Ford of Scott Pruett.
While that was taking place, Al Unser Jr. was following Team Kool’s Paul Tracy into turn three with Andretti putting all four tires on the inside curbing. Pruett had been following Andretti’s line, but instead of continuing on the same shallow line as Michael, he turned back onto the racing pavement already occupied by Team Penske’s number 2 Marlboro Penske Mercedes car of Little Al. The two cars behind Pruett (Dario Franchitti of Team Kool Green and Alex Zanardi of Team Target Ganassi) both distinctly followed Andretti’s line through the turn, but Pruett’s rear left tire forced little Al’s front right to turn hard into the tire barrier. Helio Castro-Neves stood hard on the brakes and avoided a pile up, but had to wait for CART safety officials to push him clear of the embedded Penske car, putting him in last place by the completion of lap one, under yellow (for lap one) for the fourth time in CART’s Long Beach history. Al Jr’s day was over by turn three and although he always gave an interview after disappointing races throughout 1996 and 1997, Little Al declined to comment to media following the incident.
The race continued incident free after the drop of the green flag, seeing only a pit stop by Team Walker’s Gil de Ferran after a pressure sensor told the story of a cut tire. A quick pit stop, new rubber, and de Ferran was off challenging again.
Two laps after Gil de Ferran’s unscheduled pit stop saw the beginning of great racing action. Michael Andretti performed his first of what would be a few passes in the hairpin as he got the Swift sideways a little going around the car of Walter Salles. The move brought Adrian Fernandez around Salles in the same turn. But the race wouldn’t continue for long without another incident; that same lap.
Michel Jourdain, Jr. crashed his Herdez/Viva Mexico Reynard Ford into the same tire barrier as Al Jr. had on lap one, but the ESPN’s commentator’s first reaction may have told a premonition. "Straight on went Paul Tracy into the…ah, excuse me, ah Michel Jourdain Jr. I saw the flash of green and I knew Tracy was running in that neighborhood." CART safety officials would clear the incident quickly as the green flag dropped only four laps later.
Upon the restart, Team Kool Green’s Paul Tracy got his car real wide exiting turn 6, but tried to maintain his position ahead of the passing car of Team Newman/Haas’ Christian Fittipaldi. Christian did get in front of him, although Tracy tried to regain the advantage before the next turn by neglecting his brakes. Despite having room further on the inside, Paul Tracy ran up on to Fittipaldi’s left two Goodyear tires sending the Team Kool car airborne. Tracy’s car pitched 90 degrees perpendicular with the track when the left side tires made contact with the ground and sending him into the tire barrier right side up. Both drivers walked away frustrated, but uninjured. Asked by Speedcenter.com’s corespondent Scott Reyes at CART’s next event in Nazareth Pennsylvania if there were any hard feelings toward Paul Tracy, Christian Fittipaldi responded, "No. Not at all. I even kissed him."
The ensuing pit stops put rookie driver JJ Lehto in first place (only the third rookie to ever lead a CART event at Long Beach), since he opted not to pit, with another rookie, Helio Castro-Neves behind him in second. The running order at the restart was an usual mix; Lehto, Castro-Neves, the only Lola car driven by Arnd Meier, Team Arciero-Wells’ MCI sponsored number 25 Mad Max Papis, and Dan Gurney’s All American Racing Team driver PJ Jones.
This kept the race under green until lap 25. Bobby Rahal, running 8th ran into traffic in the hairpin. Michael Andretti was launched by the All American Racing Eagle PJ Jones (number 98). Andretti returned all four tires to earth safely, grabbed a gear and took off, but Rahal couldn’t get on the clutch fast enough. He stalled his engine. Despite pleading with CART safety officials, no one would dare jump out on the track to give him a push start until it was safe to do so; after a full course caution. To add insult to injury, Bobby Rahal stalled his car trying to leave his pit after being towed in for refiring.
The caution brought JJ Lehto into the pits giving the lead to Helio Castro-Neves (fourth rookie to ever lead at Long Beach) on lap 27. He held the lead until finally pitting on lap 40 under yellow to clear Papis’ MCI Reynard from an escape road. This gave the lead to Gil de Ferran.
Lap 28 saw an interesting occurrence; a log jam at the hairpin. Ten cars were gathered up and it brought the race to a complete stop. These Champ cars were just not design with the best of turning radius in mind.
Lap 50 gave team Newman/Haas a scare. Michael Andretti developed a shearing of rubber on his front left tire while in third place. Michael was on the radio with Ed Naptman about the situation. The advice was to go easy and come in at the normally scheduled pit interval, scheduled 10-15 laps later. After all, the telemetry was reading good on air pressure, and his lap times were still with the leader’s. But it wouldn’t work out so nicely, as the left front tire delaminated, tearing itself apart on the front stretch. The yellow flag gave Alex Zanardi of Team Target Ganassi a lap back, putting him back on the lead lap.
With the major incidents out of the way, it was time for the impressive driving to make it’s appearance. On lap 82, Helio Castro-Neves passed Gil de Ferran under green flag racing to reclaim first position, but relinquished the lead again for a pit stop with about 23 laps to go, sending him back to ninth place with everyone in front of him still having to pit. He looked promising for a good finish, but locked up his brakes entering turn 6 trying to pass the slower car of number 18 Mark Blundell.
From that point up to the end of the race, a massive game of pit strategy and speed ensued that is not duplicated in any other motorsport series. Lap 93 - Gil de Ferran, after running without second gear for a few laps, lost fourth and fifth gear, ending his challenge for a podium finish. One lap later Bryan Herta entered pit for a splash and go. Lap 95, Scott Pruett follows Herta’s example and enters pit road for a splash and go. Lap 97, Adrian Fernandez, race leader, pits for a splash and go, giving the uncharacteristically quiet Greg Moore of Team Player’s Forsythe Racing the lead for the first time. Moore pitted at the end of that next lap for a splash and go, but the fueler crewman was not able to get out of the way in time for Moore’s take off. Two laps later, Greg Moore was issued a black flag penalty. This gave Herta the lead with 7 laps to go. However, Team Ganassi’s Alex Zanardi never sits idle very long. On lap 101, he got around second place Team Kool’s Dario Franchitti and started his hunt of race leader Bryan Herta that Zanardi has perfected by now.
This left a bad taste in the mouths of Team Rahal as memories of Laguna Seca haunted them again. So close to victory too many times, Herta’s crew radio to him, "Take no prisoners." He didn’t have the chance. On lap 103 Alex Zanardi passed Herta by what was arguably Zanardi’s cleanest pass of Herta to date. The secret? Fresh Firestones. On Alex Zanardi’s last pit stop, he opted to put fresh rubber on his number 1 Target car. That pass also left the door open for Team Kool’s Dario Franchitti to follow suite and reacquire second place, leaving the Hertamania man with one expression; Always a bride’s maid, Never a bride.