It wasn't Indianapolis, but winning the inaugural U.S. 500 Sunday will have to do for Jimmy Vasser.
The newest star on the Indy-car circuit continued his remarkable season, winning for the fourth time in six races - in his backup car, no less, after a crash on the final pace lap destroyed his primary machine.Vasser won the biggest prize of his career, $1 million, and an instant place in racing history as the winner of a race served up as an alternative to the Indianapolis 500.
"It's great! Who needs milk?" Vasser said, referring to the traditional drink served up in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"This is a great team," an ecstatic team owner Chip Ganassi said afterward. "We went out there in our backup car and won the race."
Vasser was dueling with Andre Ribiero when the Brazilian star had to duck into the pits for a gas with just eight laps to go. Vasser then cruised to an 11-second victory over another Brazilian, Mauricio Gugelmin, at an average speed of 156.40 mph in the 250-lap race.
"It's amazing that we could run the spare car like this," Vasser said. "It's not as quick as the primary car and we struggled with it all day. The team won this, that's for sure."
The race was slowed by 12 caution flags and blown engines took out two major contenders, Greg Moore and Vasser's teammates, Alex Zanardi. Another front-runner, Parker Johnstone, doomed his chances by running out of gas.
The start of the race was marred by a 12-car crash - just the kind of trouble that everyone expected from the rookie-dominated field at Indianapolis.
At the end of the final pace lap, Vasser and No. 2 qualifier Adrian Fernandez collided in turn four as they began to accelerate, anticipating the green flag. Vasser and Fernandez swerved into the other car on the front row, Bryan Herta, igniting a melee of flying wheels and metal as they took out nine of the cars behind them.
Since the race had not officially, the drivers involved in the crash were able to use a backup car or have their crew try to repair the damage. Nine drivers, including Vasser, went to their No. 2 cars, two of the damage vehicles were repaired and only Fernandez was not able to continue when the green flag finally dropped an hour later.
Once the race began, Vasser and Zanardi quickly established their Honda-powered cars as the strongest on the track. Zanardi moved to the lead on lap 40 and built as much as a 10-second lead with lap speeds of 232 mph.
The Italian rookie had led 134 laps when he was supplanted by Johnstone after a yellow flag-induced pit stop. Zanardi was moving back toward the top spot his engine blew on lap 175 in a haze of smoke on the front stretch. That put the race up for grabs.
"I was sure today was my day," a downcast Zanardi said, "but apparently it wasn't."
The race was formed as an alternative to the Indianapolis 500 after speedway owner Tony George guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots in the field to members of his fledgling Indy Racing League.
The Indy 500 went on as planned with a field of largely unknown drivers, while the stars of the sport followed their car owners to Michigan International Speedway, which is owned by Roger Penske.
The crowd, estimated at 100,000, was one of the largest ever to watch an Indy-car race at the 2-mile track in rural Michigan. But there were some empty seats, just as there were at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.