In this edition of First Seasons where Speedway Media takes a look back on a driver’s rookie years in racing, we caught up with former CART racer turned IMSA co-owner, Jimmy Vasser. Vasser discusses how he got into open-wheel racing with Hayhoe Cole Racing and his decision not to go to Europe and race in the states. He also talked about his memories of making his first start at Queensland, earning a ride with Chip Ganassi in 1996, and winning the championship that year among many other moments throughout his career.
SM: In 1992, you made your debut racing in the now-defunct CART Series for Hayhoe Cole Racing at the age of 26. Can you discuss what it was like making your debut during that time period and why you chose the CART Series? Did you feel as though you had a late start in racing at that age?
JV: “I didn’t feel like it was a super late start, really,” Vasser said about making his debut. “I had been racing since I was six years old with quarter midgets and worked my way up. At that time, it was young, but nowadays, that’s a lot older. I had a choice to go to Europe, which at the time was Formula 3000, and have a chance to do the Indy 500, being a young American.
“I just didn’t think I was going to get a fair shot at it (racing) and my dream was to be in the Indy 500, not Formula 1 like it is today.”
SM: Discuss how you got connected with Hayhoe Cole Racing for your first opportunity in open-wheel racing.
JV: “I was racing in Formula Atlantic and I had met Jim Hayhoe through Rick Gallas who was the team owner at the time in IndyCar and won the championship with Al Unser Jr. at the time,” he said. “There was a whole group of guys that kind of came together and helped fund me in Formula Atlantics’ and Hayhoe/Cole decided to start a team and take me to IndyCars.”
SM: In the ‘92 season, you attempted the full season with the exception of not qualifying at Nazareth. Despite not qualifying, you competed in 15 of 16 races. As a rookie in the series during that time, what kind of expectations did you have? Obviously, winning races and championships are on your mind, but realistically, how did you manage those expectations being a rookie driver, and did those ever change throughout the season?
JV: “We never intended to do a full-season,” Vasser said. “The Nazareth deal was a start and park situation. I mainly practiced and then parked the car for Derrick Walker who was trying to maintain the franchise. It (being at Nazareth) was probably the most frightening thing I ever did. I practiced but never got to race because that was good enough for Walker as he got his franchise money so to speak.
“I broke my leg during the Indy 500 that year (1992 Indy 500). “I was the fastest rookie and broke my leg about halfway in the race, which took me out for a couple of races. Three to four weeks later, I raced with a rod in my leg and raced at Portland, my first race after the Indy 500.”
SM: Your first race that season came in Queensland where you qualified 17th but finished 15th due to an electrical problem. Before we talk about the race itself, what were the weeks like leading up to your debut in CART? Were you anxious and nervous or were you ready to go as the event approached?
JV: “(I) was super ready to go,” the 10 time CART winner said when getting ready to make his debut. “We took a team meeting or team vote whether or not to go to the race and the team voted ‘No, we weren’t ready.’ It’s funny, Mike Cole who was our team manager at the time, Bill Papis was my engineer and everyone took a vote not to go to the race. There were three of us that voted to go, Jim Hayhoe, myself, and one other and I guess our votes outweighed the others.”
SM: Then in the race itself, you were relegated to 17th with the electrical problem. Is there anything you think you could have done differently to have a higher finish in your first race and were you still in awe that you had just competed in your first CART race at the end of the day?
JV: “It was a little bit of both really,” Vasser said about his first race. “We should’ve finished better. We came out of the pits on fresh slicks on a previous stop and by the time I came down to the two chicanes, it was an absolute monsoon downpour. I just slid straight off the track and our day was done. I don’t think there’s anything I could’ve done differently, but maybe stop a lap later and we would’ve had rain tires on.”
SM: At Long Beach, you had your career-best finish of seventh. However, you made your first Indy 500 start that year where you finished 21st due to a crash. With the exception of the crash, what do you remember about your first 500 experience, making the practice laps for the first time, being in the garage area, prerace ceremonies, and the race itself? Was it a surreal moment for you to be in the 500 for the first time?
JV: “Everything was surreal to me,” the 1996 CART champion said. “As for Long Beach, I was following Rick Mears and I was just in awe of racing with Mears. Other than the crash and breaking my leg during the 500, it was a full month of Indy. I was bumped out of the field and I sat for a whole week on the bubble. Finally, they bumped me out and I re-qualified back into the race with my backup car and was the fastest rookie. That was an experience like no other.”
SM: In your first season, you would only go on to finish in four races that year with your best finish of seventh occurring at Long Beach as we previously mentioned. As you continue to reflect on your career, was there a learning curve in driving the car? I’m sure it had to be frustrating wanting to learn but not finishing races. Was it the car itself?
JV: “It was a bit of the healing, but back then in that era, you were just happy to be learning,” Vasser said. “I was lucky to have a year old car with an engine that was out of date and probably 50 horsepower down. Nowadays, everyone has the same equipment and the same car to compete with. Back then, you took what you were able to get, whether it was a two-year-old car. As a driver, if you were able to perform well with equipment that shouldn’t, then you would catch the eye of another team owner.”
SM: By the time the end of the season came, you finished 22nd in the standings. While it wasn’t the finish you wanted, were you satisfied with what you were able to accomplish that year, or were you ready for the season to be over with the amount of trouble you had?
JV: As a driver, you can always do more, but I was satisfied with my rookie year,” he said. “I thought I did well at Indy aside from the crash, but in general, I think I showed well with the equipment I had.”
SM: As the ‘93 season came along, you opened up the season with a 24th place finish at Queensland, but obtained your only podium of the year by finishing third at Phoenix. How special was it for you to get your first podium especially after the year you had in ‘92?
JV: “It was one of the most special moments of my career actually,” Vasser said. “That race stands out a lot as it was my first podium finish, but also Mario Andretti’s last win of his career. I was on the podium with Mario and Paul Newman was up there as well. I was like ‘Wow, I’m up here with these guys sharing the podium.’”
SM: After the ‘94 season and spending three years with Hayhoe Racing, you got an offer to compete with Chip Ganassi Racing from 1995 through 2000. It would be some of your best years spent in the sport winning the CART championship in 1996 and winning some of your first races. How did you get the opportunity to race with Chip Ganassi and was racing with him a fresh start for you?
JV: “Jim Hayhoe was shutting down his team due to the lack of funding,” he said. “Jim had some assets of the team and some sponsorship and he put a deal together with Chip and that was the beginning. Jim Hayhoe was actually the one that put the team together.”
SM: Eventually, you scored your first ever career win in your championship season by winning at Homestead in ‘96. You qualified third and led 32 laps en route to victory. What does that first victory still mean to you to this day and have you ever had a chance to rewatch that race?
JV: “I haven’t watched that race back (Homestead ’96). I’m not the one who goes back and watches races,” Vasser said. “The win was a sweet victory for me because going into the end of 1995, I finished second in Portland and post-race inspection had disqualified Al Unser Jr., so I originally was the race winner. However, Penske Racing took the decision to CART in court in the winter and the finish was reversed and my win was taken away.”
SM: In the ‘96 season, you went on to win at Queensland and Long Beach before having solid finishes along the way. At what point, did you and the team feel you were championship contenders?
JV: “We were contenders the whole season,” he said. “We were the quickest in preseason testing, we had a great combination of the Firestone tires and we won four out of the six races. So, we were contenders the whole season and we were really hanging onto the championship.
“My teammate, Alex Zanardi, was learning the IndyCar and he got competitive in the middle of the season, so the championship got very competitive.”
SM: At the end of the ‘96 season, you won the CART title over Michael Andretti by 22 points. What was it like being able to achieve the championship for Ganassi and especially winning over Michael Andretti? Did the championship do wonders for your career?
JV: “It was everything for my career,” the California native said. “You strive for race wins, championships, and the Indy 500. At that point in time, winning the championship was just magical.”
SM: I’m sure there are many races where you wish you had another chance. Are there any races that come to mind, and if so, which race sticks out the most, and why?
JV: “The one race that’s obvious is when I finished second at Long Beach in 2002,” Vasser said. “We were leading when a caution came out and in that time of CART, there was a strange race format where if you pitted, you couldn’t take fuel every 29 laps and everyone had just pitted.”
“However, Michael Andretti and Max Papis had just pitted and were running in the back at the time. When the yellow came out, they told me to save fuel and slow down. For Michael and Max, they were still able to pit and I slowed down and they came out in front of me. That’s how I lost the lead in that race. I was able to get back by Max but never could with Michael.”
SM: Out of your 10 victories, which trophy means the most to you in your collection?
JV: “I would say the 1996 championship means the most to me,” he said. “As far as race victories, I would say the 1998 Fontana California race on a last-lap pass of Greg Moore. Got second in the championship that year, which was another good chunk of money. Winning that race was like winning the Indy 500 for me.”
SM: Some drivers keep a memorabilia collection and some don’t. Are you a driver that collects your own merchandise and if so, what do you have in your collection that reminds you of your rookie years?
JV: “I keep all of my gear as I’m not much of a merchandise collector,” Vasser said. “I have my very first helmet that I drove from my rookie year.”
SM: Wrapping this interview up, it’s hard to believe your debut came 30 years ago. However, if time travel was available, what would a 56-year-old Jimmy Vasser tell a 26-year-old Jimmy Vasser? Is there anything you would do differently?
JV: “I don’t think there’s anything I would do definitely, as I’m really happy currently,” the ‘96 champion said. “I would probably say, ‘Stay on the right track and you’re doing just fine.’”
Throughout Vasser’s career, the California native has made 232 CART Series starts earning 10 career victories with 33 podium finishes and winning the 1996 championship with Chip Ganassi. In addition, Vasser had made six NTT IndyCar Series starts, eight IROC starts, and two NASCAR Xfinity Series starts in 2003. Vasser now co-owns the Vasser-Sullivan Lexus Motorsports IMSA team in GTD Pro competition.