RETRO: CART’s Michigan Underdog Day

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

Although I haven’t forgotten who won the 1994 CART IndyCar Series 500-mile race at Michigan’s great superspeedway; it was Scott Goodyear, who took the second victory of his cursed IndyCar career, I hadn’t achieved anything really unusual at the time. The part that stood out more than any other was the podium at this sunny July 31 event in front of 75,000 fans.

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

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

The fact that the top three were using the same Lola chassis was not the common denominator: it was an incredibly rare IndyCar result where all three competitors made their first podium appearance in the same race. Talk about a shocking result. The Michigan podium was a 100% pure underdog.

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

But the racing gods had something else in mind, as a tidal wave of attrition guaranteed that this race would have an outcome no one predicted.

In the case of King, Indy Regency and PacWest, Michigan 1994 hosted all three teams in a wacky reality where collectively three of CART’s smallest outfits – utterly unaware of being in the top three – took down the giants of IndyCar.

The packed house at MIS saw a list of favorites change wildly from start to finish.

While I’d love to tell you the trio kicked ass from the start, 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 lap 66, and from there it was Simon’s Raul Boesel and Penske’s Al Unser Jr. who took full control of the race until lap 230 of the 250 laps. King and Goodyear came in on lap 231 and 19 laps later the outlier teams were spraying champagne.

But to fully appreciate the remarkable series of events that took place to make Michigan’s rookie podium exist, we need to skim through the record books.

• Lap 9: Bobby Rahal’s Lola-Honda stopped with a reported fuel pump failure. Outside.
• Lap 24: Rahal’s teammate, Mike Groff, loses a clutch. Outside.
• Lap 35: Pole sitter Mansell lasted as long as he could after his throttle started to stay wide open and couldn’t be fixed. Outside.
• Lap 48: Jimmy Vasser’s Hayhoe Racing Reynard suffered a wheel bearing failure. Outside.
• Lap 55: Leader Card Lola of Buddy Lazier had his electrical system broken down. Outside.
• Lap 64: Adrian Fernandez’s Wales Racing car is engulfed in flames during refueling. Outside.
• Lap 66: Michael Andretti, then in the lead, becomes entangled in a quarrel between latecomers and understeers into the wall with his Ganassi Reynard-Ford XB. Outside.
• Lap 67: Like Lazier, Eddie Cheever’s AJ Foyt Lola is beaten down by electrical problems. Outside.
• Lap 76: Noting that something had broken in the left front suspension, Jacques Villeneuve hammered the wall with his Player’s Reynard. Outside.
• Lap 116: Ross Bentley’s two-year-old Lola Dale Coyne Racing develops an exhaust manifold problem. Outside
• Lap 121: Mario Andretti’s Newman/Haas Lola-Ford suffers engine failure. Outside.
• Lap 138: 1992 Euromotorsports Lola-Chevy of Jeff Woods overheats. Outside.
• Lap 150: Paul Tracy’s Penske PC23-Ilmor loses fuel pressure. Outside.
• Lap 160: Mauricio Gugelmin hits the wall in his Ganassi Reynard. Outside.
• Lap 176: Stefan Johansson’s Penske PC22-Ilmor Bettenhausen Motorsports explodes. Outside.
• Lap 182: Robby Gordon’s Walker Lola-Ford loses an engine. Outside.
• Lap 185: Scott Sharp’s PacWest Lola has a transmission failure. Outside.
• Lap 209: Emerson Fittipaldi’s Penske PC23-Ilmor burns out its engine. Outside.
• Lap 225: Boesel’s Ford engine makes a kerblammo when it is in the lead. Outside.
• Lap 231: The last member of the Penske trio, Unser Jr., sees his engine die while in the lead, leaving 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 podiums: Goodyear (middle), Luyendyk (right) and Dobson.

“We’re going to take it any way we can,” Goodyear said after getting out of his car. “If everyone had stayed, we wouldn’t have won. We certainly weren’t the fastest, but some days that’s not necessary. The most important thing is that you are there at the end. I’ll take five or six of these lucky ones all year.

Luyendyk was also perplexed by the insane failure rate that promoted King, Indy Regency and PacWest to the Michigan spotlight.

“Ours is an amazing story, really,” he said. “There was only one car missing to make it a really good day. At the end Dominic Dobson and I were in contention for position. The crew did a fantastic job on our final pit stop. Then we beat them by two seconds. I’m very happy for the team.”

It may not have been her fastest run, but Indy Regency Lola de Luyendyk persevered to second place.

Goodyear earned Bernstein’s first win after seven years of trying, and for Sal Incandela’s small Indy Regency team, the race marked his first top-10 finish. Looking back on the day, Incandela’s son , Daniel, recalls his late father being grateful, but the Formula 1 veteran and IndyCar crew chief turned team owner remained calm as he knew their second place finish was not due to a crushing speed.

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

For Dobson, his third-place run with Bruce McCaw’s new PacWest team was a career high, having bettered the seventh-place finish he achieved in 1989 with another unheralded IndyCar team, Bayside Disposal Racing, owned by Bruce Leven – the “Garbage Man” – of IMSA fame.

Dobson’s number 17 delivered a result that presaged the success to come for the PacWest team.

“Obviously we were all helped by attrition because there was a lot of that in the event,” Dobson told RACER. “I walked into the store the other day, and sure enough, they had the ’94 Michigan 500 and I looked at some of it and there were a lot of guys that broke down, a couple crashes, and we got just kept going more and more. We definitely had a solid car that day.

Dobson was the fastest qualifier among those who finally found their way to the podium. Starting ninth, the PacWest Lola-Ford was not a leading car, but it had the potential to do well after Dobson showed plenty of speed at the Indy 500 before being eliminated in a clash with Mike Groff.

“I think the most important thing that came out of it was redemption and boosting team morale,” he said. You know, I had a really good car at the Indy 500 that year. I saw Groff a few years ago and he came up to me and he apologized for the first time, and I graciously accepted his apology and we laughed about it. It wasn’t funny back then, but I had a really good race car for the Indy 500 and I got run over. So going back to a big oval and doing well and getting on the podium was a great morale boost for the team. It was my one and only CART podium, 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 decisive victory turned out to be the only one for Kenny Bernstein in CART.

Michigan’s victory, coming in the latter stages of the 1994 season, would prove to be King Racing’s first and last. With six rounds to go, Goodyear would add a fourth-place finish to Vancouver, and in the season finale at Laguna Seca, Bernstein’s team would bid farewell to IndyCar with a poor finish of 27th among 29 starters.

Incandela’s Indy Regency effort would join King in closing its program after Laguna Seca, but would return for a three-year stint in the Indy Racing League from 2000 to 2002 where, over six races, the former driver of F1 Hideki Noda took 17th place at Gateway before he met his true end.

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

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