Jimmy Vasser: One Word – Solid

When I watch the silver, blue and orange car of KV Racing Technology on the track this season, I always watch it with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m not a fan of Mario Moraes. I’m not sure that he’ll ever grow on me, either. On the other hand, I’ve always been a big fan of Jimmy Vasser who co-owns the team with Kevin Kalkhoven. It really makes me feel old to say that I have watched Jimmy Vasser come up as a young kid, win a championship and retire as an owner. It seems like he was a rookie just last year.

Actually, it was 1992 when Jimmy Vasser made his CART debut in a year-old Lola-Chevy owned by Jim Hayhoe with Kodalux and STP sponsorship. He started modestly enough, finishing a quiet fifteenth at Surfers Paradise, before bowing out with electrical problems. The next race at Phoenix saw him crash on lap 166 to finish fifteenth again. His shining moment came the following week at the streets of Long Beach, where he started thirteenth and finished seventh. This gave him and his small team momentum heading into the Indianapolis 500.

Unfortunately, Vasser was one of the many that crashed in the 1992 Indy 500 and broke his leg. He only missed one race though, and returned at Portland although a fuel pump sidelined him after thirty-two laps and he settled for twenty-third place. This was a pretty typical race for Vasser and Hayhoe/Cole racing. Their budget caused them to miss several races in that second half of 1992 and Vasser finished twenty-second in points.

1993 showed more promise although lack of funding still caused Vasser to miss three races that year. Still, when on the track, Vasser performed very well and finished sixteenth is points despite missing three races that year. The following year showed even more potential for the struggling team. Hayhoe/Cole had secured sponsorship from Conseco to go along with the STP sponsorship. Plus, the team had secured the new Reynard chassis for 1994.

The 1994 season started strong as Vasser scored top-five finishes in three of the first four races including a fourth place at Indy. The third year driver was opening a lot of eyes in the paddock. But reality caught up at the halfway point as several careless accidents and equipment failures caused five DNF’s in a row. All in all, there were seven DNF’s for Vasser in the final eleven races of 1994. Hayhoe/Cole Racing folded just before the start of the 1995 season.

Chip Ganassi had already hired Bryan Herta to replace Michael Andretti in the Target-Scotch Video car for 1995. When Vasser became available bringing his STP sponsorship with him prior to the season, Ganassi decided to expand to a full-time two-car team. It was a rocky start as Vasser followed up an eighth place finish at the opener in Miami with another streak of five DNF’s. Included in that stretch was a twenty-second finish at Indy when he crashed while leading on lap 170.

The following year saw Vasser team with Alex Zanardi as Ganassi made the move to Honda engines and Firestone tires. The Reynard-Honda-Firestone combination would prove to be THE winning trio for years to come. Vasser stormed out of the gate in 1996, winning four of the first six races and remaining consistent enough in the final half of the season to win the CART championship.

One of those wins was the ill-advised US 500 run at Michigan directly opposite the 1996 Indianapolis 500 in one of the darkest days in racing that I can remember. Vasser did not help his popularity with open-wheel fans as he popped out of the car in victory lane and exclaimed, “Who needs milk?” At that time, I was fully in CART’s corner for a number of reasons, but I didn’t care for the same-day running of the US 500 and I certainly didn’t like Vasser’s comment. It would later come back to haunt him when he returned to Indy in 2000.

Zanardi came into his own with the team the following year when he won the championship in 1997 & 1998. He went on to drive for Williams in Formula One and was replaced by Juan Montoya, who won the championship as a rookie in 1999 giving Ganassi four straight CART championships. Vasser had become the consistent yet unspectacular number two driver on the team. He left Ganassi after the 2000 season.

Vasser joined Pat Patrick’s operation for 2001 and had a disappointing year finishing twelfth in points. For 2002, he moved to Team Rahal and rebounded by finishing sixth in points and winning the race at Fontana, which would end up being the final race win of his career. He closed out his career driving for PK Racing, which became PKV when he eventually bought into the team. His last full season to drive was in 2005, although he did drive in the Champ Car finale in Long Beach in 2008, finishing in tenth place.

Probably the biggest travesty of Jimmy Vasser’s career was that he missed driving in the Indianapolis 500 in the peak of his career. Everyone mentions those that were robbed the most from the split being Bobby Rahal, Paul Tracy, Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti. I would submit that no one felt the effects of the split more in their career more than Jimmy Vasser. He was just coming into his prime as the split occurred. By the time he returned in 2000, his best days were already behind him; as he watched his teammate Juan Montoya, completely dominate that race.

Other than his infamous “milk” comment, Jimmy Vasser has always been a class guy. The best way to describe his long career was one word – solid. He is not a mouthpiece and will always let you know what is on his mind, but he does so with integrity. He is a throwback to the image of the racer from the sixties – a nice looking guy who always seems to have a drink in one hand and a good-looking blonde in the other. But when it comes time to race, he knows it is time to get serious and he’s all business..

Now he is forty-three years old and a car-owner. He flirted with the idea of racing at Indy this year, but decided against it. He may or may not race an IndyCar again. He now calls the races for his friend and former competitor Paul Tracy, in the few races when Tracy is racing. Otherwise, he is calling the shots for Mario Moraes. Jimmy Vasser is the only reason I would ever pull for the #5 Azul Tequila car.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Jimmy Vasser: One Word – Solid”

  1. Unser and Rahal robbed from the split? I don’t see why anyone would say that. Neither of them won in CART after 1995, and the Penske and Rahal teams struggled mostly throughout the ’90s. Little Al won a few IRL races later but he was no longer a threat at Indy.

    Actual drivers who may have been “robbed”? Michael Andretti, Greg Moore, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi. I can’t think of anyone else really because those were the guys who did the best on ovals. Little Al and Rahal were done. Moore is more overlooked than Vasser even…even though he was pretty much as good as anyone at ovals in that era of CART.

  2. J.V. is a ‘class act,’ I’ve always said. Totally cool. Always gracious. Even when he was punted out of a race or let down by his car he never pitched his helmet or gloves or gestured in anger or frustration or expressed angst on camera. I would’ve pitched fits when suffering misfortunes year after year, team after team. I’ve always liked his demeanor and attitude. Never a sour-puss, pouty or temperamental, like some spectacular drivers (JPM) and also-rans (Danica).
    I didn’t notice him in 1994 at Laguna Seca nor March ’95 in Miami, but only started following him in 1996. I’m very glad he has a second career and a means to keep his hand in the game, with a team that wins sporadically. I had hopes for Katherine Legge after she showed promise in Atlantics, and I was always a fan of Cristiano and Oriol …

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