RETRO: CART’s day of the underdogs at Michigan

Images by Dan R. Boyd

RETRO: CART’s day of the underdogs at Michigan

IndyCar

RETRO: CART’s day of the underdogs at Michigan

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I was looking through an old racing magazine last weekend and came across one of the stranger results in IndyCar’s long history.

Although I hadn’t forgotten who won the 1994 CART IndyCar Series 500-mile race on the big Michigan superspeedway; that was Scott Goodyear, who earned the second victory of his star-crossed IndyCar career, I’d failed to realize something truly unusual at the time. The part that stood out more than any other was the podium for that sunny July 31 event held in front of 75,000 fans.

Goodyear earned most of the accolades for driving his Budweiser King Racing Lola T94/00-Ford Cosworth XB to the first win for the team owned by drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein. A winner at the same event in 1992, Goodyear’s oval prowess was known. The triumph for Bernstein and King was the remarkable part of the story. And it didn’t stop there.

In second, it was 1990 Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk and his Indy Regency Racing Lola T94/00-Ilmor, and in third, was IndyCar stalwart Dominic Dobson in his PacWest Racing Group Lola T94/00-Ford Cosworth XB.

The fact that the top three used the same Lola chassis wasn’t the common denominator: This was an incredibly rare IndyCar result where all three entrants made their first podium appearance at the same race. Talk about a shocking outcome. The Michigan podium was 100-percent pure underdog.

On a grand stage like the wickedly fast 2.0-mile oval where Nigel Mansell set pole position at 233.738mph, the big teams like his Newman/Haas Racing organization, the powerhouse Penske Racing operation, Hall/VDS Racing, Forsythe-Green Racing, Walker Racing, Dick Simon Racing and the upstart Chip Ganassi Racing Teams program were expected to pack the front of the results sheet with their drivers.

But the racing gods had other things in mind, as a tidal wave of attrition ensured this race would have an outcome that nobody would have predicted.

In the case of King, Indy Regency and PacWest, Michigan 1994 served as the welcoming for all three teams to a far-fetched reality where collectively, three of CART’s smallest outfits — wholly unfamiliar with being in the top three — felled IndyCar’s giants.

The packed house at MIS saw a wildly changing list of front-runners from start to finish.

As much as I’d love to tell you the trio kicked ass from the outset, it took an afternoon of cataclysmic misfortune for Goodyear, Luyendyk, and Dobson to break through for their teams.

The race opened with Mansell leading the first 26 laps. Michael Andretti took over until the 66th lap, and from there, it was Simon’s Raul Boesel and Penske’s Al Unser Jr. who took total command of the race until the 230th of 250 laps were completed. King and Goodyear stepped in on the 231st lap and 19 tours later, the outlier teams were spraying champagne.

But to fully appreciate the remarkable series of events that took place in order for Michigan’s first-timers podium to exist, we need to run through the record book.

• Lap 9: Bobby Rahal’s Lola-Honda ground to a halt with a reported fuel pump failure. Out.
• Lap 24: Rahal teammate Mike Groff lost a clutch. Out.
• Lap 35: Polesitter Mansell lasted as long as he could after his throttle started sticking wide open and could not be repaired. Out.
• Lap 48: Jimmy Vasser’s Hayhoe Racing Reynard had a failed wheel bearing. Out.
• Lap 55: Buddy Lazier’s Leader Card Lola had its electrical system fail. Out.
• Lap 64: Adrian Fernandez’s Galles Racing car was engulfed in flames while refueling. Out.
• Lap 66: Michael Andretti, while leading, gets tangled up in a squabble among backmarkers and understeers into the wall with his Ganassi Reynard-Ford XB. Out.
• Lap 67: Like Lazier, Eddie Cheever’s A.J. Foyt Lola is felled by electrical issues. Out.
• Lap 76: Noticing something had broken in the left-front suspension, Jacques Villeneuve hammers the wall in his Player’s Reynard. Out.
• Lap 116: Ross Bentley’s two-year-old Dale Coyne Racing Lola develops an exhaust manifold problem. Out
• Lap 121: Mario Andretti’s Newman/Haas Lola-Ford suffers an engine failure. Out.
• Lap 138: Jeff Woods’ 1992 Euromotorsports Lola-Chevy overheats. Out.
• Lap 150: Paul Tracy’s Penske PC23-Ilmor loses fuel pressure. Out.
• Lap 160: Mauricio Gugelmin clobbers the wall in his Ganassi Reynard. Out.
• Lap 176: Stefan Johansson’s Bettenhausen Motorsports Penske PC22-Ilmor blows a motor. Out.
• Lap 182: Robby Gordon’s Walker Lola-Ford loses an engine. Out.
• Lap 185: Scott Sharp’s PacWest Lola has a transmission failure. Out.
• Lap 209: Emerson Fittipaldi’s Penske PC23-Ilmor toasts its motor. Out.
• Lap 225: Boesel’s Ford engine goes kerblammo while leading. Out.
• Lap 231: The final member of the Penske trio, Unser Jr., has his engine expire while leading, handing the race to Goodyear.

And yes, with 20 DNFs, only eight of the 28 cars that started the race made it to the finish.

The most unlikely of podiums: Goodyear (middle), Luyendyk (right) and Dobson.

“We’ll take it any way we can get it,” Goodyear said after climbing from his car. “If everybody had stayed in, we wouldn’t have won. We certainly weren’t the quickest, but some days you don’t have to be. The most important thing is you’re there at the end. I’ll take five or six of these lucky ones all year.”

Luyendyk was equally bemused by the crazy rate of failures that promoted King, Indy Regency, and PacWest to Michigan’s spotlight.

“Ours is an unbelievable story, really,” he said. “Just one more car needed to go out to make it a really good day. At the end, Dominic Dobson and I were racing for position. The crew did a fantastic job on our last pit stop. Then we beat them out by two seconds. I’m very happy for the team.”

It might not have been his fastest ride but Luyendyk’s Indy Regency Lola persevered to second.

Goodyear delivered Bernstein’s maiden victory after seven years of trying, and for Sal Incandela’s tiny Indy Regency team, the race marked its first finish inside the top 10. In remembering the day, Incandela’s son Daniel recalls his late father being appreciative, but the veteran Formula 1 and IndyCar crew chief-turned-team owner remained calm as he knew their second-place result did not come from overwhelming speed.

“He was very happy and it came at a good point in the season, because it had been tough and funding was unknown,” Incandela said. “So it was a good result, but he didn’t get carried away because he knew this wasn’t the best second place. It was a second place, but it wasn’t because the team was super competitive. It was more than they were there at the end. But I do remember it was just a huge relief because it hadn’t been had been a tough season and something good finally happened.”

For Dobson, his run to third with Bruce McCaw’s new PacWest team was a career best, having improved upon the seventh place he earned in 1989 with another unheralded IndyCar team, Bayside Disposal Racing, owned by Bruce Leven — the “Garbage Man” — of IMSA fame.

Dobson’s No. 17 delivered a result that presaged the PacWest team’s success to come.

“Obviously, we were all helped by attrition because there was a lot of it in the event,” Dobson told RACER. “I walked in through the shop other day, and sure enough, they had the ’94 Michigan 500 on and so I watched part of it and there were a lot of guys who broke down, a couple of crashes, and we just kept moving up and up and up. We definitely we had a strong car that day.”

Dobson was the fastest qualifier among those who eventually found their way to the podium. Starting ninth, the PacWest Lola-Ford wasn’t a front-running car, but it had potential to do well after Dobson demonstrated plenty of speed at the Indy 500 before he was taken out in a clash with Mike Groff.

“The biggest thing I think that came out of it was redemption and morale building for the team,” he said. You know, I had a really good car at the Indy 500 that year. I saw Groff a couple of years ago and he came up to me and he apologized for the first time, and I graciously accepted his apology and we had a laugh about it. At the time, it wasn’t funny, but I had a really good race car for the Indy 500 and got crashed out. So to go back to a big oval and do well and podium was a great morale boost for the team. It was my one and only podium CART, and it meant a lot because the team was new and we were struggling in our first full year. I did seven Indy 500s and Michigan ended up being my best 500-mile result.”

The breakthrough win proved to be the only one for Kenny Bernstein in CART.

The Michigan win, coming in the latter stages of the 1994 season, would prove to be the first and last for King Racing. With six rounds left to run, Goodyear would add a fourth-place result in Vancouver, and by the season finale at Laguna Seca, Bernstein’s team would say farewell to IndyCar with an unkind finish of 27th among the 29 starters.

Incandela’s Indy Regency effort would join King in shuttering its program after Laguna Seca, but it would return for a three-year stint in the Indy Racing League from 2000-02 where across six races, ex-F1 driver Hideki Noda took 17th at Gateway before it met its true end.

PacWest’s fortunes would rise as a complete overhaul for 1995 brought Danny Sullivan and Gugelmin in, and by 1997 with the pairing of Gugelmin and Mark Blundell, McCaw’s operation reached its full potential as four combined wins propelled “Big Mo” to fourth and MB to sixth in the CART standings.

The team would persevere through the early stages of the 2002 championship before pulling the plug as ever-decreasing fortunes followed the 1997 season. One bright spot, however, continues from PacWest’s legacy as Scott Dixon, its 2001 CART Rookie of the Year, found a new home with Chip Ganassi Racing where he’s won an Indy 500 and six IndyCar titles.

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