Sometimes, like when there hasn’t been an IndyCar race in six months, it’s fun to look back and see which drivers appeared headed for stardom but didn’t quite get there, or take a glance at the cars, races or teams that never turned a wheel, or revisit a story that made everyone feel good.
And when you’ve hoarded 100 old On Track magazines and spend several hours a week in the Bone Marrow Hilton, it’s the perfect combination for reminiscing, so here’s a glance back at 1986. Not counting IndyCar and NASCAR there were 22 other series in the USA that merited coverage by Paul Oxman’s people.
* During winter testing at Phoenix, speeds approach 170 mph a lap and the Championship Drivers Association voice their collective opinion that running wide open around a mile oval is insane. They ask CART to drop the rear wings three to four inches, but were told: “It would cost a lot of money and disrupt people.”
* Parker Johnstone, an instructor at Bob Bondurant’s Driver’s School, captures the 444-mile enduro for SCCA Escorts at Sonona.
* Eddie Cheever fills in for Patrick Tambay at Haas Lola in F1 and also races sports cars for Jaguar, while younger brother Ross Cheever wins the SCCA Lucas Oil Challenge for Sports Renault at Sears Point but is fined and suspended for rough driving. It is the first time we ever see Lucas Oil in motorsports.
* Jim Crawford wins something called the Indian Grand Prix and said in victory lane: “All I want is a good ride at Indianapolis.”
* The March 86C has a twin-exhaust system, engineered for more downforce and similar to one developed by Lola the year before – which was subsequently banned. Lola teams are furious; CART says it is gathering information.
* The Ford engine is finally ready for the Lola chassis that’s been re-figured by Ross Brawn but Beatrice Foods informs Carl Haas it will not be sponsoring his F1 or IndyCar efforts, and buys out the contract – which paid a staggering $80 million in 1985.
* The Kraco Stereo team has built its own IndyCar – the KR-1 – designed by Don Halliday, and it tests impressively at Laguna Seca and Phoenix. But the works March team opts to stick with Adrian Newey for Michael Andretti.
* ABC announces that the 1986 Indy 500 is going to be shown live and veteran announcer Ken Squier says: “I think it’s a mistake. They’re going from three hours in prime time to four hours on one of the least-watched afternoons of the year.”
* One month before the American Racing Series made its debut at Phoenix, only five entries have been submitted.
* After being a frontrunner in Super Vee and winning the Formula Pacific title in Australia, 29-year-old Californian Jeff McPherson heads for the European F3000 series with an eye on F1.
* Journeyman Phil Krueger, who was badly injured trying to make Indy in 1981 and hurt even worse at Michigan in 1984, signs on as co-crew chief with A.J. Watson to run Gary Bettenhausen at Phoenix and Dominic Dobson at Long Beach.
* Fourteen cars lined up for the first ARS race at Phoenix on April 6 – including Sammy Swindell, Jeff Andretti, Desire Wilson, Stan Fox and Billy Boat. But Steve Millen scored the initial win for Jim Trueman’s team in the stepping stone to CART.
* In the Camel GTO race on the streets of Miami, Willy T. Ribbs leads the whole race until Scott Pruett passes him on the last lap. Ribbs tries to regain the top spot but knocks Pruett into the wall, and Jack Baldwin goes past both disabled cars for the victory. W.T. wins $1,500 after being voted “outstanding performer” with three laps left and IMSA fines him $2,000 for rough driving.
* A.J. Foyt and Danny Sullivan share a Porsche, start 18th and charge to second in the IMSA Grand Prix of Miami for GT prototypes.
* In response to a fan’s complaint about not enough ovals on the ’86 CART schedule, PPG Industries Racing President Jim Chapman writes a letter to the editor at On Track reminding people that USAC ran road races in the 1960s and 1970s, and there simply aren’t enough viable ovals to sustain a full schedule ,and that street races are also welcome addition.
* Calvin Fish wins the EZ Wider Challenge series for Formula Atlantics at Lime Rock and is rumored to be in line for an Indy 500 ride with Dick Hammond.
* Ribbs’ first test in a NASCAR stocker ends up against the wall at Atlanta after an A-arm failed.
* The Whittington brothers are headed for jail after accepting a seven-count plea bargain for their drug activities. Bill is sentenced to 15 years plus a $7 million fine while Bill is given 18 months. Early in May, John Paul Jr. gets five years for aiding his father’s drug trafficking as a teenager and Crawford takes his Indy ride. Randy Lanier wins Rookie of the Year at IMS, but never turns another lap at the Speedway after being convicted of in relation to a massive marijuana operation.
* Phil Krueger works on his year-old March with his three part-time volunteers and sticks it in the show to finally make the Indy 500 and make everyone smile.
* Actor David Hasselhoff and car owner Aat Groenevelt try to get Al Unser to drive for them but the three-time Indy winner wisely choses to stay with that Penske guy.
* Mears and Sullivan have a great duel for the pole position at Indy, but The Rocket prevails by an eyelash.
* Tom Sneva crashes on the pace lap, and there are no cameras around the track so nobody sees it. ABC’s Bill Fleming asks team manager John Anderson if the car can be repaired and Ando replies: “What are you talking about?”
* Kevin Cogan looks like a sure winner until a late caution bunches the field and Bobby Rahal blows by him on the lap 198 restart to win in front of his car owner Jim Trueman, who was battling cancer and died less than two weeks later. The ratings were 8.8 – down from a 9.7 in 1985, but still pretty damn good.
* After sitting out the 1985 season following his near-fatal accident at Michigan in 1984, Chip Ganassi is back in the starting lineup at Indy, driving for the Machinists Union – which makes father Floyd very happy, since he was a union man from way back.
* Michael Andretti leads his first 45 laps of competition at Indy under the engineering brilliance of Adrian Newey.
* Paul Newman wins the Trans Am race at Lime Rock over Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Scott Pruett and Chris Kneifel.
* Dale Coyne is lapped 32 times at San Air in his stock-block Chevy by winner Rahal.
* Paul Tracy, 17, wins an SCCA Can Am race.
* Brit Andy Wallace beats Mo Gugelmin and Jan Lammers in the Macau Grand Prix after taking British F3 title.
* Didier Theys takes the Bosch VW/Super Vee championship ahead of Mike Groff, Scott Atchison, Dave Kudrave, Thomas Knapp. Dennis Vitolo, Johnny O’Connell, Tony George and Tero Palmroth.
* Fabrizio Barbazza claims the ARS title with Jeff Andretti, Groff, Juan Fangio II, Billy Boat, Tommy Byrne and Swindell following.
* Jimmy Vasser wins the SCCA Formula Ford national runoffs at Road Atlanta with Dean Hall third and Robby Groff fourth.
* Wally Dallenbach Jr. claims the Trans Am crown, Al Holbert the IMSA GTP, Jim Downing Camel Lights, Pruett the Camel GTO champ and Tommy Kendall the GTU king.
* Scott Goodyear wins the ECAR Eastern Atlantic title while Ted Prappas earns the WCAR championship. Jon Beekhuis takes Jim Russell honors, Steve Knapp captures Pro Sports 2000 and Johnstone wins the IMSA Renault Cup.
* Gustav Brunner is at Laguna Seca with Truesports, ramping up those Ferrari to CART rumors.
* Big Al wins the 1986 IROC finale at Daytona, beating Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott.
* Cheever makes his CART debut at Tamiami Park, where Rahal edges Michael Andretti for the CART crown by eight points and earns $300,000.
*Newey announces he is leaving March for Newman/Haas and Mario in 1987.
Of all the hopefuls named above, Vasser went from Formula Fords to CART champion, as did Tracy. Goodyear had Indy ripped out of his hands in 1995, and Knapp made three Indy 500 starts with a third in 1998. Pruett gave Firestone its first win on its 1995 return to CART, and Beekhuis did a good job for Derrick Walker and Foyt but never made it to Indianapolis. Neither did young Dallenbach or Fish, although Dallenbach did make some CART road course appearances. Fox lived a short-tracker’s dream, making eight Indy 500s while maintaining his mastery in midgets. Wilson ran in CART but never made it to Indianapolis.
Groff got stuck in the Honda development quicksand but still ran at Indy, while Boat was an IRL frontrunner and Andretti started three Indy 500s. Barbazza was rookie of the year in 1987 and Johnstone was on the good side of the Honda horsepower and ran in CART for three seasons. Hall made one Indy start, which was one more than Swindell (who got bumped) and Fangio (a CART regular during The Split) while Palmroth (4), Vitolo (2), Atchison (1) and O’Connell (1) got a taste before the latter made a name for himself in sports cars.
Ribbs made history with a dramatic run on his final attempt at Indy in 1990, but Byrne never got a shot in an IndyCar and that’s a pity, because he was quick. Ditto for Kendall. Kneifel was an IndyCar regular for a couple seasons, but despite his open-wheel prowess, Wallace became a sportscar badass. JPJ returned and scored an IRL win at Texas, while also qualifying six more times at Indy.
Downing and his late partner Dr. Bob Hubbard revolutionized safety with the HANs Device while Beekhuis, Fish, Sneva, Dallenbach, Kendall, Cheever, Tracy and Brian Till have all moved in and out of television commentary during the past 25 years.