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Crash Mars Beginning of Inaugural U.S. 500

May 26, 1996 GMT

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) _ It wasn’t exactly the kind of history the organizers of the inaugural U.S. 500 wanted to make. Their rebel race was delayed for an hour by a crash on the pace lap.

Ever since the rift between CART and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George made it apparent there would be competing Indy-car races on Sunday, car owners had been touting the race at Michigan International Speedway as the best, as the real thing.

``The real cars, the real cars, the real 500,″ was the slogan aimed at George and his Indy 500, dominated this year by cars from his rival Indy Racing League.


Yet the start of the CART race had to be delayed 61 minutes after the car of pole-sitter Jimmy Vasser started a chain reaction crash that involved 12 of the 27 machines that had qualified.

Vasser then went on to win his fourth race in six starts this season, driving a backup Reynard-Honda to victory by more than 10 seconds over Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin.

Vasser, following the pace car driven by actor Paul Newman, appeared to come together with Adrian Fernandez in turn four as the cars revved up for the green flag at the start of the race. Vasser and Fernandez swerved into the other car on the front row, driven by Bryan Herta.

``I don’t know what happened at the start,″ said Vasser, the PPG Cup leader. ``Someone hit me in the back. I’ve got some bruised knees but that’s it.″

Since the green flag had not come out, the drivers involved in the crash were able to use backup cars. The cars that escaped damage returned to the pits to await another start.

The race finally got under way after a flurry of activity on pit road as crews worked to repair damaged cars or prepare their backup machines. Fernandez was the only driver unable to make the restart.

``Right from the start, there wasn’t much room,″ Fernandez said. ``Being in the middle, I has no place to go.″

Team owner Steve Horne said the failure to get a backup car ready stemmed from confusion after the crash.

``The primary car was left out for about 30 minutes after the accident,″ Horne said. ``I was not allowed to go and look at the car. We thought we had damage to the undertray and exhaust. We started stripping the pieces from the spare car.

``(But) when we received the car, it was too damaged to repair. We started to put the spare car back together, but there was too much to do and not enough time.″

Herta finally blew an engine after 216 laps.

``It was a long day for us,″ Herta said. ``But it’s amazing we could run so strong in the spare car. We never ran that car here until the crew rolled it out for the restart.″

The crash was ironic since there were fears that something just like that would happen at Indianapolis, where 17 of the 33 drivers were Indy rookies. But that race began with a trouble-free start, then ended with a big crash moments after Buddy Lazier crossed the finish line.

``That’s something that shouldn’t happen at the start,″ Herta said. ``It’s a real disaster. What a tough way to start the weekend.″

The other drivers involved in the crash were Gil de Ferran, Juan Manuel Fangio II, Andre Ribiero, Jeff Krosnoff, Fredrik Ekblom, Mauricio Gugelmin, Eddie Lawson, Emerson Fittipaldi and Parker Johnstone.

Johnstone had a scary moment as the crash unfolded in front of him.

``I looked up and there was a projectile going through the air, so I ducked and it hit the roll hoop,″ he said.

De Ferran and Johnstone were among the drivers who were able to get their cars repaired, while the others went to backup cars.

The last time an Indy-car race was delayed by a crash before the green flag dropped was a 1994 race at New Hampshire. Fernandez also was involved in that incident, along with Arie Luyendyk and Jacques Villeneuve.

There was plenty of action once the race began, too, especially as the miles wore on and the attrition rate climbed. But there were no injuries.

Canadian rookie Greg Moore, who finished second in his last race, at Nazareth, Pa., was running third when his car got loose and slid down onto the infield grass coming out of Turn 2. But the 21-year-old Moore held on to the spinning Reynard-Mercedes, got it back on the pavement, and continued racing.

Veteran Bobby Rahal, seeking his 25th Indy-car victory, hit the wall and went out of the race, uninjured, after 129 laps. The accident was a big disappointment to comedian David Letterman, Rahal’s partner in the racing team.

Gary Bettenhausen, 54, the last driver into the field, was making his first start since 1993. He was uninjured when his car made contact with the wall in turn four during lap 85.