Thirty years ago at the Mid-Ohio road course, the fastest American open-wheel machines and the best sports prototypes found themselves in the most unlikely of competitions.
From a chronological standpoint, IMSA was the first major series to race at Mid-Ohio in 1991 where Tommy Kendall earned pole in his MTI Racing Chevy Intrepid RM-1 with a lap of 1m12.611s in June. In September for the CART IndyCar Series race, the challenge was laid down by Michael Andretti who set a new lap record for the 2.2-mile circuit with a remarkable lap of 1m9.475s in his Newman/Haas Racing Lola T91/00-Chevy (main image, pictured at Laguna Seca). The margin between the two rockets was a sizable 3.136s.
For the sake of a modern comparison, Josef Newgarden set pole for last year’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio with a lap of 1m06.674s in his No. 2 Team Penske Chevy. Six weeks prior, IMSA was at Mid-Ohio for its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event where Mazda Motorsports’ Harry Tincknell earned pole in his No. 55 RT24-P DPi with a lap of 1:10.027s, some 3.353s slower than Newgarden in his Dallara DW12 chassis, and nearly a match for the IndyCar-to-IMSA gap from 1991.
It’s in the transition to 1992 where tears in the time-space continuum appear.
Once again, IMSA was first on the calendar at Mid-Ohio and during a rain-filled May weekend, something extraordinary happened when it came time for qualifying to take place. Armed with the groundbreaking Jaguar XJR-14, a GTP car that has often been hailed as a Formula 1 car masquerading as a prototype, TWR USA’s Davy Jones took Kendall’s 1991 pole time of 1m12.611s and knocked 2.755s off of it with a 1m9.856s delivered in his otherworldly Jag.
If obliterating the previous GTP pole wasn’t enough of a year-to-year feat, Jones and the XJR-14 came within 0.381s of Andretti’s overall track record set in his Indy car. And while Jones’ lap easily captured pole for the IMSA race, it was also good enough to earn second place on the 1991 CART grid at Mid-Ohio, topping front-row starter Rick Mears by 0.150s with the 1m10.006s he turned in the Penske Racing Penske PC20-Chevy.
And if nearly matching Andretti’s 1991 pole wasn’t impressive enough, Jones’ amazing lap was set on a damp track. That’s right. In one of the rare moments where the rainfall stopped at the 1992 IMSA event, Jones and the rest of the drivers had to navigate the 11 turns without the benefit of rubber being worked into the track surface and not all of the corners being perfectly dry.
The TWR driver was so authoritative in imperfect conditions, he edged future GTP champion Juan Manuel Fangio II in the Eagle Mk III by a full 1.269s. With the same dry and rubbered-in circuit to use as Andretti had in IndyCar qualifying, it’s not hard to imagine the scant 0.381s separating IndyCar and GTP poles being greatly reduced, if not tipped in the XJR-14’s favor. What an amazing time for motor racing.
“The previous car, the Jag XJR-16, was a powerful twin-turbo V6 and was a heavier car,” Jones told RACER. “The XJR-14 was a lot lighter at 1700 pounds, and we lost about eight miles an hour going on the back straight at Mid-Ohio with the high-downforce configuration on the car. But we gained 15 miles an hour in Turn 1. That car, for Mid-Ohio, it just worked so well.
“Going up over the hill in the back and down through the Esses, if you could just keep the momentum going and keep air flow going over the car, it just stuck. I mean, that car produced 7500 pounds of downforce.”
Powered by a 3.5-liter Ford-Cosworth Formula 1 V8 engine, the XJR-14 designed by Ross Brawn in 1991 for TWR’s European campaign was sent Stateside for TWR USA to use in 1992. In its one and only season in GTP, the Jag stood out – like a single-seater fighter jet from another galaxy — and had to content with AAR’s Eagle Mk III GTP as it was hitting its competitive stride.
Like at Mid-Ohio, the XJR-14 was a guided missile in qualifying. The Eagle Mk III usually gained the upper hand in the races, but on those Saturdays where the outer limits of prototype design and creativity could be pushed to the stratosphere as drivers used their sports cars to flirt with IndyCar speeds, something magical was on display in 1992 as GTPs blew our minds.
“That was the part that was crazy,” Jones said. “With that car, it was a mind over matter. You had to fight yourself just to stay in it, stay in the throttle, because your mind didn’t want to believe you could go that fast and keep going faster if you stayed in it. The more you pushed yourself and refused to lift, the more the thing just stuck to the ground, but if you if you lifted, the front would pop up a little bit and it would just want to understeer and wash out a bit. That pole lap, you put your head in the game and just pieced a really nice lap together.”
CART would follow IMSA a few months later in September and in the new arrow-like Lola T92/00-Ford-Cosworth, Andretti edged Paul Tracy, setting another outright lap record in the process with a 1m8.766s tour, lopping a full 0.709s off his 1991 pole and former lap record. Using his damp pole speed from May, Jones’ prototype would have started eighth among the 26 entries on the IndyCar grid.
Sadly, with the GTP class already crumbling under the weight of costs and excess as a global recession was emerging, IMSA monoliths like Nissan’s factory prototype effort and Jaguar’s program with the XJR-14 would disappear by the end of 1992. Without a chance to respond to Andretti’s new standard, we didn’t get to see what the Jag and Jones could generate in 1993.
“I look back at our TWR team, and every time I went to a race weekend, I felt like I had the very best that money and technology could put underneath me,” Jones said. “They gave me the best of everything do what I had to do, so with that mindset, you feel unbeatable.”
Facing a lack of factory opposition and various performance sanctions from IMSA, the Eagle Mk IIIs were well off the 1992 pace when they returned. It left the benchmarks set by Andretti and Jones as a mythical moment in North American racing that would never be reproduced. In one year, a 3.0s gap between IndyCar and IMSA was cut to 0.3s, and afterwards, the fun police intervened.
For 1994, IMSA killed the GTP class and replaced it with the comparatively low-tech WSC formula. Mid-Ohio also fell off the calendar, leaving the brief intersection of outrageous performances and similarities in speed between two very different types of cars as an unbelievable footnote in racing history.