“You know it was life-changing for me, right?” Jimmy Vasser says.
Imagine having your biggest dream come true, at your home track, in front of all the family, friends, and colleagues who made it possible. That was Vasser’s reality on this Laguna Seca race weekend back in 1996 as he produced a trio of firsts.
With a steady drive on September 8, Vasser sealed what would be his first and only CART IndyCar Series championship. And while the title would serve as the Californian’s top achievement in the sport, it had bigger ramifications for his Chip Ganassi Racing team which would use the 1996 title as the foundation to capture 12 more in the decades ahead. Vasser’s championship-clinching drive also brought Honda its first of nine IndyCar manufacturers’ crowns, the most recent coming in 2020 with CGR’s Scott Dixon.
Take all that CGR has come to represent in motor racing across open-wheel, NASCAR, sports cars and even off-road competition, and it was 25 years ago at Laguna Seca where the powerhouse organization truly took flight.
“In ’96, and I didn’t know it at the time, but we ended up having ‘The Package,’” Vasser tells RACER. “Reynard chassis. Firestone tires. Honda engine. Right away in early in testing, we could see that machine was fast. And I had a new teammate in Alex Zanardi, who was finding his way early on, but I also could also tell that he was bringing a lot to us. We clicked immediately as teammates. It just happened naturally. That’s when I think Chip would even say it was the beginning of it becoming a real team, to feel really good under the tent, like a team is really supposed to feel like.”
CGR made its CART debut in 1990 with Eddie Cheever and moved through a number of drivers, including Arie Luyendyk and Michael Andretti before expanding to two cars in 1995 with Bryan Herta as the leader and Vasser as the understudy. A significant overhaul for ’96 saw Herta replaced by Zanardi, Ford-Cosworth engines traded for Hondas and Goodyear tires swapped for Firestones. Only Vasser and the choice of Reynard as chassis supplier carried over. Altogether, “The Package” and the magic pairing of the American and Italian duo transformed the program into the series’ top performer.
The 1996 tour opened on the Miami-Homestead oval where Vasser captured his first win, followed by an eighth on the Rio oval, and another win, this time down under in Australia at the Surfers Paradise street circuit. Vasser’s amazing start to the season continued with a win on the streets of Long Beach; he was batting 0.750 and on a giant roll. A step back to seventh on the Nazareth oval cooled his momentum, but it returned in a big way at Round 6 where Vasser and CGR won CART’s alternative to the Indy 500.
With the U.S. 500 victory, a streaking Vasser had claimed four wins and held a sizable lead in the drivers’ standings as the halfway point of the season approached.
“The ball was in my in my court, and the first four races didn’t come easy except for Long Beach; I was going to finish second and then Gil de Ferran loses his turbo with two laps to go,” Vasser says. “We won Homestead, were on pole and won at Surfers, and then Adrian Fernandez crowds me when I’m on pole at [the U.S. 500], and we all look like idiots with that big crash, but we got the backup car out and won with it.
“But then it just stalled, man. From there, we were just not doing well. The year started as a coming-out party for us, right? Domination coming into the midseason, and then the wins stopped. And for me, then it became about just picking up points. I think I scored points in just about every race for the rest of the year.”
Looking back, Vasser says the dry victory spell in the 10 races that followed the U.S. 500 were emblematic of an issue that hindered the remainder of his IndyCar career.
“If I can be honest, that was kind of the flavor of how my career went; I could be fast and on my game and dominate at times, but there were times in my career that I just didn’t know why, but I wasn’t on the pace,” he admits. “With the same car as my teammate, and it seemed like Zanardi, and then [Juan Pablo] Montoya, they were just able to be on the pace consistently with the equipment that we had.
“For me, there were the weekends where I’d show up and my teammate’s on pole and I’m pulling 10th. You know, I just couldn’t put a finger on that. There were times when, yep, I could beat my teammates, and then you know, the teammates like Zanardi and Montoya would walk away from me on a weekend and I didn’t know what the **** happened. But I didn’t throw it at the fence trying to beat them. I’d bring it home fifth or sixth, and that’s just the way it was. The midseason of ’96 was like that.”