RETRO: The first Magnussen IndyCar debut

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RETRO: The first Magnussen IndyCar debut

Insights & Analysis

RETRO: The first Magnussen IndyCar debut


For years, Mid-Ohio has been among the most grueling stops on the IndyCar calendar. On top of being new to the car, team and series, Magnussen’s first laps at Mid-Ohio were done the old-fashioned way. Long before simulators and YouTube videos existed, the then-23-year-old got to grips with the rolling road course by flogging the 850hp Penske-Mercedes.

“You know, testing doesn’t really prepare you for racing at Mid-Ohio, so I do remember how physical it was,” he said. “Especially Turns 7-8-9, and how the car compressed after that sequence; just a super, super physical ride. And no power steering, which is what I was used to.”

Magnussen qualified 18th for his IndyCar debut, and while the starting position might not stand out as remarkable, his veteran teammate and two-time series champion Al Unser Jr. qualified 15th.

“The coolest part is I was being told by Roger Penske, before the race — because I was doing this one for him and then doing some for Hogan after — he said, ‘Go out there and race, learn as much as possible, but don’t take any crap from anybody!’ I was like, ‘Nice! Freedom with responsibility.’ He didn’t want me to let anybody push me around, which I thought was a cool note to give your new driver. But man, I got into the race and I really wanted power steering. I wasn’t physically prepared for all that because of the broken leg and not so much training.

“But it was just a great experience. I ended up in the race coming together with Mark Blundell into the Keyhole, and needed to get pulled out of there, so I lost a couple of laps and finished 14th. I wish at that time — because in ’96, I was en route back to Formula 1 — to be more open to the idea of IndyCar being an option instead of Formula 1. But you know, you live and learn. It’s much easier to predict the past. I loved it. In hindsight, I should have pushed to stay in IndyCar, but then I wouldn’t have gone for Formula 1 and gotten my ass kicked…”

Magnussen found IndyCar a refreshing and challenging arena during stints with both the Penske and Hogan teams. Marshall Pruett archive

One week later, Magnussen would switch to Fittipaldi’s red No. 9 Penske PC-25-Mercedes at Road America, where he’d demonstrate the kind of performance that was on display in his European junior open-wheel days. Starting 10th, he outqualified Unser Jr. in 12th, and was primed for a fight with the season’s best in Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti and so many others.

“Qualifying was good and then, actually, in the pre-race warm-up, I remember being right up towards the front of the time sheets, and I was like, ‘OK, now I know what I’m doing,’” he said. “Then at the start of the race coming down into Turn 3, there was a bunch of guys moving around, and in the end, I ended up driving into Bobby Rahal’s rear wheel and breaking my front suspension. Race over already on Lap 1, which was a big shame because I think I could have done well in the race. But that’s how these things go.”

As much as he’d like to be present for his son’s first IndyCar start on Sunday in Wisconsin, Jan will be in Sweden racing a Porsche, and will keep tabs from afar.

“Regardless of how it’s gonna go with Kevin this weekend, I got lucky with that test at Sebring; he is really getting thrown in at the deep end, having never driven the car,” he said. “But the one good thing is he’s been to the track. He tested with Chip Ganassi and the Cadillac DPi, so he knows the track, already loves the track, so he just needs to learn a car,

“But he’s up against some super-talented drivers. So regardless, I know he’s gonna love it. He loves to drive, and he loves to drive brutal cars, and IndyCar definitely is that, for sure.”

Magnussen’s Hogan Penske was literally flaming red on race day in Vancouver… Marshall Pruett archive

Returning to 1996, Magnussen would go on to do those two other races at Vancouver and Laguna Seca and focus on raising his four-year-old son Kevin as the Stewart F1 team beckoned. In typical fashion for the hilarious Dane, the conversation closed with a quick yarn about that Canadian CART race in the No. 9 Penske-Mercedes where he finished an unflattering 22nd.

“During the Vancouver race, I don’t know what the hell happened,” he said. “I think I was running about midfield, and suddenly my shift-without-lift stopped working. You know, you just stay flat on the throttle and pull the gear lever and it would cut the ignition and let you shift without lifting. So that failed and I had to lift off to shift while I was fighting somebody for position, which wasn’t great on this street course.

“So I got a little pissed and call it in on the radio and said that no-lift-shift is not working. And no answer. Nobody answers a couple of times. Third time when I’m screaming over the radio, ‘The f•••ing no-lift-shift is broken,’ and just as I come off the radio button, I can hear my engineers just clicking off his button and I can hear the word ‘Fire.’

“And as I hear the word fire, there’s yellows. I’m thinking, ‘All right, somebody crashed. It must be on fire.’ So I’m driving down the street, pissed with the knowledge of the car not working correctly, and I drive to the hairpin at the end of the straight, come around the hairpin and there’s a big screen TV right there, so I can see what’s going on…and there’s me on fire. So that’s why the no-lift-shift wasn’t working…because it was on fire with the rest of the back of the car. I was calling my engineer complaining the same time he was calling me and I didn’t hear about it until it was too late… Good times.”