A Somewhat Overlooked Loss

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Jimmy Vasser is best known for winning the 1996 CART championship and for winning eight races for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But before Vasser drove for Chip Ganassi and became the Jimmy Vasser we know today, he drove three years for the late Jim Hayhoe who also served as his mentor in CART. Prior to that, Vasser drove two full years for John Della Penna in the Toyota Atlantic Championship.

Vasser credits Della Penna for resurrecting his driving career, which had gotten sidetracked in the late eighties. John Della Penna passed away last week after a battle with cancer.

Robin Miller wrote a nice column on Racer.com last week acknowledging his death, as did David Malsher at Motorsport.com. But for the most part, Della Penna’s death went unnoticed by most besides the die-hards. That’s a shame, because his is a very interesting story.

John Della Penna was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1951. He grew up idolizing the great Argentinean racer, Juan Manuel Fangio. There is some debate as to when he moved to the United States to pursue his passion of racing. Some reports say it was 1969, while others say it was 1972. Regardless, he moved here at a young age and never looked back. Although he became a decent driver, the constant financial struggle finally won out.

But he didn’t stay out of the sport for long. He became involved in team management and eventually owning his own team in the Atlantics Championship. The ladder system was not as structured in those days and some actually considered Toyota Atlantics to be a better proving ground than the Indy Lights Series of the day. By 1990, Della Penna had already established Della Penna Motorsports and had hired the young Vasser, who Della Penna knew through Vasser’s father. In 1991, Vasser won six races and eight poles, but finished second in the championship to Jovy Marcelo, who would be fatally injured in a practice crash at Indianapolis the following May.

When Vasser left for the Indy cars and CART in 1992, Della Penna decided to step back until he could find a suitable replacement for the departed Vasser. That would come in 1994, when he hired Richie Hearn. Hearn would finish second in the Toyota Atlantics standings that season, then Hearn and Della Penna won the championship in 1995.

Della Penna had planned all along to move his team up to CART in either 1995 or 1996. After taking a sabbatical in 1992 and 1993, that was pushed back to 1996. But a funny thing happened on the way to their CART debut – The Split. Della Penna loved the CART series, but he had also always dreamed of racing in the Indianapolis 500. In 1996, it was tough to do both.

John Della Penna wasn’t caught up in the politics between CART and the IRL. He was just a racer that wanted to go racing. He didn’t care about whose feathers he ruffled along the way, so he chose a path that very few did in 1996 – he raced in both series. In the IRL, he raced Hearn at Walt Disney World, Phoenix, Hew Hampshire, Las Vegas (where they won) and…the Indianapolis 500, where he finished third. That same season, Della Penna and Hearn ran in selected CART races at Long Beach, Toronto and Laguna Seca.

According to NBC and IndyCar statistician, and fellow-Nashvillian Russ Thompson; Della Penna Motorsports was the only team from either side to cross over and do non-Indy races that year. Della Penna heard the critics that he was playing both sides of the fence. He didn’t care. He did what he thought was right for his fledgling team. He didn’t care about the politics of the day.

For 1997, Della Penna and Hearn did choose to focus exclusively on CART. Unfortunately, they were saddled with the underperforming Lola chassis and the Ford XB, which was getting a little long in the tooth and was way inferior to the now-dominant Honda power-plant – and Hearn finished twenty-first in points. For 1998, Della Penna bought Hearn the promising and good-looking Swift chassis. They had also traded their longtime Ralph’s sponsorship for the coveted Budweiser primary sponsorship. But the results were not significantly better, as Hearn finished sixteenth in the championship.

The first five races of the 1999 season saw only one Top-Ten finish, even though they had moved to the promising new Toyota engine. After the race in Rio that season, Della Penna ditched the Swift chassis in favor of the Reynard, which had won the previous four championships. But the switch made little difference in their fortunes. Over the remaining fifteen races, Hearn only earned four Top-Ten finishes, with none higher than sixth. There were also seven races with a finish of fifteenth or worse.

Hearn and Della Penna parted ways after 1999. For 2000, Della Penna ran Norberto Fontana (there’s a name from the past) for the first half of the season, then American Memo Gidley in the second half. The best either driver could muster was one lone single-digit finish – a sixth place finish for Gidley at Road America. After the 2000 season, Toyota ended their relationship with Della Penna. Rather than go seeking a new engine partner, Della Penna pulled the plug on his team and they called it quits.

Although John Della Penna was a very successful team owner in Toyota Atlantics, his IndyCar teams only produced one win from 1996 through the 2000 season – and that was in 1996, the first year of the IRL where the competition was just slightly less than stellar.

But John Della Penna’s legacy isn’t about wins and losses or points standings. If you read what both Jimmy Vasser and Richie Hearn said about the man, their recollections go far beyond the stat sheet. To them and probably the other drivers that he helped over the years, including Willie T. Ribbs and Juan Manuel Fangio II, John Della Penna was a mentor, a father-figure and a friend. They didn’t speak of his checkbook, they spoke of his big heart and his passion for racing.

Memo Gidley had invited Della Penna to join him at the IndyCar season finale a week and a half ago at Laguna Seca. But his health had deteriorated rapidly and he chose to spend his last days at his home. He passed away just four days after the race in nearby San Francisco. He was sixty-eight years old. It’s a shame more didn’t pay notice to his passing. From what I can tell, he was a fascinating man.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “A Somewhat Overlooked Loss”

  1. Thanks for sharing George, I don’t believe I’d heard of him until he passed. Sounds like a fascinating and passionate man.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    One could argue that the one good thing about the split was that in its early days it provided a great opportunity for new young team owners, buoyed by a hot mid-90s economy, to jump in to open-wheel racing. While NASCAR was grinding car owners out of the sport through consolidation (there were 2 multicar teams in the ’90 Daytona 500, and 9 in the ’99 edition!), Indycar practically doubled their grid size with two series and a lot of smart, passionate people jumped in. Alas, the split economy eventually superseded the 90s economy and pretty much all of these guys were sadly ground out of the sport (Dennis Reinbold is the last immediate post-split team, I think, though Rahal was founded shortly before).

    John Della Penna was one of these guys and I always admired his passion and definitely rooted for his cars to do well (I still have an inflatable #10 Budweiser Swift-Ford), even Norberto Fontana’s “Videomatch” machine. I hated seeing his team become another one of the casualties of the Toyota pull-out ( along with AAR, PPI, Gordon, Patrick, Kelley, and Mo Nunn) and I really wish his team had been able to establish themselves when the sport was on firmer ground. He was definitely the kind of guy the sport could use more of now, and he is surely missed.

  3. A good guy who I enjoyed seeing as a winner in 1996. He was in a few CART Facebook groups which I thought was cool. One of which was run by a very strange and eccentric lady who kicked him out because he broke some rule about posting 2 pictures instead of one. Made no sense to me as he was a great poster and storyteller, but you know plenty of people find their power in life through being a rule-maker on social media!

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