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Vasser Wins Race, Zanardi Wins Title

Motor racing: Ganassi's team lands a 1-2 punch at Laguna Seca. Zanardi's CART championship earns $1-million bonus.

September 08, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY, Calif. — Chip Ganassi's two-car team of Honda-powered Reynards was right on target Sunday at Laguna Seca Raceway.

Alex Zanardi finished third in the red No. 4 to clinch the PPG CART World Series championship and its $1-million bonus.

Jimmy Vasser drove the red No. 1 to victory in the Toyota Grand Prix of Monterey in the fastest race run on the 11-turn, 2.235-mile hillside road course. Vasser averaged 109.647 mph for the 185-mile race, shattering Zanardi's year-old record of 102.687.

The results were a turnaround from a year ago when Vasser won the championship and Zanardi the race in Ganassi's Team Target cars.

"I've got the two greatest drivers in the world, I'm sure of that," said Ganassi, a former Indy car driver who turned owner in 1990.

Zanardi, no shrinking violet, agreed.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant," the 30-year-old Italian said, "but Chip is lucky to have a couple of drivers like Jimmy and me."

The closest thing to trouble the team had occurred on the cool-off lap when Zanardi took his hands off the steering wheel to clap for his teammate and the two cars touched, sending Vasser spinning into the dirt.

"I was so happy for Jimmy, I thought I would cheer for him. Instead, I hit him. How embarrassing," Zanardi said.

Vasser started walking toward Victory Circle, but hitchhiked a ride down the hill from Max Papis.

"I was trying to think of some way to celebrate besides spinning doughnuts like Alex does, but I never thought of crashing," Vasser said with a big smile. "I don't think Chip will mind too much."

Zanardi's 14 points for finishing third put him over the top for the season, even before the final race Sept. 28 at California Speedway. He has a 41-point lead, 195-154, over Gil de Ferran, with only 22 points on the table at Fontana.

"I am leaving for my home in Italy and if I don't break my collarbone, I will be back for the Fontana race," he said with a broad grin.

Vasser, who crossed the finish line 0.543 seconds ahead of Mark Blundell, made a big move in the points, jumping from seventh to third.

"It's just great to get back in the winner's circle," said Vasser, who had not won since the U.S. 500 at Michigan last year. "We had some good opportunities to win earlier this season, but we couldn't match Alex's consistency.

"Recently, we kind of reevaluated things a little bit, went back to our old program that worked well at the start of last year, and I think that's made a big difference."

Joe Montana, the former NFL quarterback, also basked in the glory as part owner of fellow Pennsylvanian Ganassi's team.

"It's difficult today in any sport to put together a team the way Chip has done that will win a championship two years in a row," Montana said. "He had to have the right chassis, the right engine, the right crews, the right sponsors, and then he had to go and find two guys like Jimmy and Alex to get the job done."

It is the only the second time in CART history that a team has won consecutive titles with different drivers. The other time was when Penske Racing won with Rick Mears in 1982 and Al Unser Jr. in 1983.

Vasser, who started sixth, took the lead from Scott Pruett during a pit stop on Lap 26 and held the front position for the remaining 58 laps.

Pole-sitter Bryan Herta got the jump on Zanardi in the race to the first turn and struggled to maintain his lead despite tire problems until he tangled with first Zanardi and then Vasser.

While Herta and the two Target cars took turns bumping one another off the course, Pruett took advantage of the opportunity and passed all three.

"The tires went so bad after 15 laps that I was just driving my butt off to stay ahead of Alex," Herta said. "We were racing straight up and I didn't mean to put him off in turn two. My car had no grip and I slid into him. Then Jimmy [Vasser] came alongside me and I was in the marbles and slid into the dirt."

Pruett was third with four laps remaining when his car was punted by Andre Ribeiro from the rear, breaking the suspension. That dropped Pruett to 16th and enabled Zanardi to move into third.

In an Indy Lights race, Brazilian rookie Cristiano de Matta defeated series leader Tony Kanaan in a race that was slowed so many times by accidents that only 25 of the scheduled 34 laps were run.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

CART Standings

After 16 of 17 races

1. Alex Zanardi: 195*

2. Gil de Ferran: 154

3. Jimmy Vasser: 128

4. Paul Tracy: 121

5. Mauricio Gugelmin: 119

6. Greg Moore: 111

7. Michael Andretti: 108

8. Scott Pruett: 96

9. Mark Blundell: 95

10. Raul Boesel: 91

* Clinched championship

Up Next

* WHAT: Marlboro 500

* WHERE: California Speedway, Fontana.

* DISTANCE: 500 miles (250 laps)

* WHEN: Noon Sept. 28, after practice Sept. 26 and qualifying Sept. 27.

* COMPANION RACE: Indy Lights, 2:45 p.m. Sept. 27.

* TICKETS: Grandstand seats sold out, infield general admission tickets available at $60.

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