1996 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World
|1st round of the 1996 Indy Racing League season|
|Date||January 27, 1996|
|Official name||Indy 200 at Walt Disney World|
|Location||Walt Disney World Speedway|
|Course||Permanent racing facility|
1.000 mi / 1.609 km
200.000 mi / 321.869 km
|Weather||Dry with temperatures reaching up to 80.1 °F (26.7 °C); wind speeds reaching up to 13 miles per hour (21 km/h)|
|Driver||Buddy Lazier (Hemelgarn Racing)|
|Driver||Buzz Calkins (Bradley Motorsports)|
|Time||20.954 (on lap 188 of 200)|
|First||Buzz Calkins (Bradley Motorsports)|
|Second||Tony Stewart (Team Menard)|
|Third||Robbie Buhl (Beck Motorsports/Zunne Group)|
The 1996 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World was the first round of the 1996 Indy Racing League, and the inaugural event for the Indy Racing League, who initiated the American open-wheel split that would last for 12 years. The race was held on January 27, 1996, at the 1.000 mi (1.609 km) Walt Disney World Speedway in Bay Lake, Florida. The race was won by a rookie driver, Buzz Calkins, after leading 130 laps. Future Indy Racing League and NASCAR champion Tony Stewart also made his Indy car debut, finishing second after a late-race duel with Calkins.
The first event for the breakaway Indy Racing League would take place at Walt Disney World Speedway, a brand new venue inaugurated on November 28, 1995. Testing began immediately, with tire sessions by Firestone and Goodyear followed by an open test on December 4–8 with 11 drivers taking part. On December 6, a tentative entry list was published, with 18 car-driver combinations, including 1990 Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, Indianapolis track record holder Roberto Guerrero, 1995 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Brayton and two drivers that had driven full-time in the IndyCar World Series that year, Eddie Cheever and Eliseo Salazar. They were joined by a handful of rookie drivers headlined by former Formula 1 race winner Michele Alboreto and 1995 Formula Atlantic champion Richie Hearn. None of the top-16 drivers in the two previous IndyCar seasons would take part in this inaugural event. World of Outlaws multi-champion Steve Kinser had tested with Foyt, aiming for an IRL ride, but the deal fell through.
Further testing followed from January 9–19, with 20 drivers taking part at some point. On January 13, Butch Brickell broke two vertebrae in a hard crash at Turn 1, and was ruled out of the event, although he remained entered. In the meantime, five new signings were made (John Paul Jr., Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl, Lyn St. James and the fastest man during testing, Buddy Lazier), boosting the driver count to 21 when a new entry list, with Brickell out of action and Tony Turco's entry withdrawn because of sponsorship issues, was released. Paul Jr., however, was not able to test, as his car lacked an engine, with PDM Racing having to retort to a Buick-powered Team Menard back-up car to race at Orlando. On the last day of testing, Team Menard tried Tony Stewart, the first driver to have conquered the USAC Triple Crown, and promptly signed him for the season.
Out of the track, the animosity between the IRL and the IndyCar World Series (CART) had been fueled by the 25/8 Rule, perceived by CART teams as an measure to lock them out of the Indianapolis 500. Tensions escalated on December 19, when CART announced the creation of the U. S. 500, an event at Michigan International Speedway that would be held on Memorial Day, in direct opposition to the Indianapolis 500, and on January 11, when A. J. Foyt filed a $5 million suit against CART for anti-competitive practices.
On 4 January, Oldsmobile was announced as the first engine supplier of the 4.0 V8 engine formula that the IRL was set to use from 1997. Five days later, Andy Evans bought the remaining share of Dick Simon in Scandia/Simon Racing, which would still compete under that name at Walt Disney World. That left A. J. Foyt as the only full-time owner from the 1995 season to compete at Orlando.
Practice and qualifying
On Wednesday, January 24, Tempero/Giuffre Racing entered David Kudrave in a second car, before rookie orientation began. Also, A. J. Foyt Enterprises entered Mike Groff in a third car on Thursday before the start of practice. Richie Hearn led the first day of practice with a 181.827 mph lap, with Buddy Lazier in close pursuit. They would be the only drivers to dip into the 180 mph mark during the weekend, with Roberto Guerrero in third at just 179.292 mph. Bill Tempero, whose best lap was a 152.207 mph, and Rick DeLorto, clearly off the pace at just 107.223 mph in the best of his 30 laps, failed to complete their driver's tests and were not cleared to drive, as well as Jim Buick, who did not took to the track despite being present.
On Friday morning practice, Eliseo Salazar clipped the wall at the exit of Turn 3 and lost control of the car, crashing into the front-straight inside wall and right side into the outside wall on Turn 1. In the last impact, a stabilizing rod went through his cockpit, penetrating his right leg. Salazar was transported by helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he underwent surgeries for a fractured femur and thigh injuries, being listed afterwards in stable condition. Buddy Lazier led the session with a lap at 181.800 mph, followed by Richie Hearn and Arie Luyendyk.
Lazier, who had not started higher than 16th in his previous 55 Indy car races, qualified on pole with a best lap of 181.388 mph. Hearn fell just short of the 181 mph mark, settling for second on his first Indy car qualifying session. Seasoned veterans Guerrero and Luyendyk, who used a back-up car that would be later renumbered, qualified third and fourth, in front of Scott Sharp and five further rookies. As expected by the nuances of their stock block engine, Team Menard struggled in qualifying, but, with just 67 laps of winter testing, Tony Stewart surprised by outqualifying his more established teammates, Eddie Cheever and Scott Brayton.
John Paul Jr., whose only winter running had been a few laps in Brickell's car in early December, had the only incident of the session after brushing the wall in Turn 2, completing only one timed lap at 160 mph. Unlike Stewart and Groff, who ran on competitive race cars, other drivers at the bottom of the field suffered from the lack of mileage: Johnny O'Connell, who passed his driver test in the morning after just 64 laps in the last day of testing, got stuck at 167 mph; Johnny Parsons, without any laps at speed during winter testing, barely went over 153 mph, and David Kudrave, with no previous mileage whatsoever, qualified even slower at just 146.353 mph, a 35 mph, 4.5 second deficit over Lazier's time. On raceday, he would be black flagged after just four laps.
On Friday afternoon practice, held after qualifying, Eddie Cheever and Richie Hearn collided and crashed at Turn 1 when Cheever went low on Hearn's path. Both drivers were unhurt, but their chassis were damaged beyond repair, and had to use spare cars. They were allowed to start the race at the back of the field, after taking part in a 15-minute special warm-up session. Because of their lack of a competitive spare car, Della Penna had to reach a deal with Pagan Racing to use Roberto Guerrero's back-up unit. The Colombian was now due to start on the front row because of Hearn's demotion, which left Buzz Calkins as the best placed rookie in the 5th spot. Like Lazier, Scott Sharp had a much improved career-best grid spot in the 2nd row, having never started higher than 13th,
Failed to qualify or withdrew
- Eliseo Salazar - for Scandia/Simon Racing
- Rick DeLorto R - for DeLorto Motorsports
- Bill Tempero - for Tempero/Giuffre Racing
Packed grandstands, estimated at 50,742 espectators, witnessed the grand opening of the Indy Racing League on Saturday. The start lacked a proper alignment of the rows, as only the first two rows and a couple of others in the back were loosely side by side before Lazier started to accelerate entering Turn 4, and almost all the field saw the green flag in single file. Roberto Guerrero was caught off-guard by Lazier's getaway, and Arie Luyendyk passed him for second place entering Turn 1. On Lap 10, Tony Stewart completed his first overtake on Davey Hamilton for sixth, and had worked his way up to third when the caution came out on Lap 18. Richie Hearn had already gained 12 positions and was running in 7th place when a sway bar adjuster broke on his car, causing him to spin at the exit of Turn 1. Stewart overtook Luyendyk at the restart on Lap 24 and grabbed the lead five laps later.
Lazier began to lose pace with a loose right front upright, and just after being passed by Luyendyk for second place on Lap 37, he headed to the pits, where Hemelgarn's crew spent a minute and a half sorting out the problem. In a later pit stop, his team choose to take parts from Stéphan Grégoire's car, already retired after suffering gearbox issues in his pit stop while running ninth, and put them in Lazier's car. However, handling issues persisted, and Lazier dropped out before the halfway point. Around Lap 30, Buzz Calkins started mounting a charge towards the front, overtaking Scott Sharp on Lap 32, Roberto Guerrero on Lap 35 and Arie Luyendyk on Lap 51. Heavy traffic after the pit stops helped him catch Tony Stewart on Lap 55, and Calkins took the lead on Lap 66, just before the second round of pit stops.
While heading to the pits, Luyendyk ran out of fuel, and his car stalled while exiting the pit box, needing a push start. Traffic, solid pace and a fast pit stop by Calkins, executed two laps after Stewart's, allowed him to open a huge gap: on Lap 84, only Stewart (15.3 seconds behind) and Guerrero (17.2 seconds) were still on the lead lap, and by the halfway mark, a cautious Stewart was 21 seconds behind Calkins, before the Menard driver reacted in order to not lose a lap, staying within 15 seconds of the leader. Behind him, Luyendyk began to regain ground, steadily climbing up to 7th place on Lap 127. However, his gearbox was under strain after the pit issues, and the Byrd/Leberle-Treadway driver lost all gears during his third stop, forcing him to retire.
Rookie Stan Wattles was running on fourth place, after overtaking Davey Hamilton on Lap 35 and having stayed out of trouble. On Lap 147, shortly after a pit stop, he spun on Turn 2 and hit the inside wall, in what he described as "a rookie mistake". The ensuing caution allowed Stewart to cut back the gap on Calkins, and Robbie Buhl, who had not made his third stop, gained five places pitting under caution, rejoining in third place over Michele Alboreto, Roberto Guerrero, who suffered a brief stall in his pit stop, and Hamilton. Further back, Eddie Cheever had gotten up to ninth place, his progress having been hampered by the same handling issues that had forced his teammate Scott Brayton to retire from the race. With lapped cars in between, Calkins opened again a small gap of 3 seconds over Stewart.
On Lap 178, Davey Hamilton crashed out of sixth place after a sudden mechanical failure on Turn 2. The race restarted on Lap 184, and Cheever, who had passed Johnny O'Connell 20 laps before, took seventh place over Scott Sharp. The Foyt driver was trying to get it back when both drivers collided on Lap 189, in a crash that resembled the one Cheever and Hearn had the day before, with Cheever on the outside of Turn 1 this time. Calkins made it safely through the scene of the crash, but Stewart encountered the safety vehicles and debris on his path, and had to swerve to avoid hitting them, brushing the outside wall at low speed in the process. Stewart was able to continue and, when the race was restarted with six laps to go, he began hounding Calkins for the lead. Eventually, Stewart ended losing some ground and, despite a late charge, Buzz Calkins took the checkered flag by eight tenths of a second.
Calkins had won in his first Indy car start, becoming the first American driver to do so, in a feat only equalled by Formula 1 world champions Graham Hill at the 1966 Indianapolis 500 and Nigel Mansell at the 1993 Australian FAI IndyCar Grand Prix. The circumstances of the Split and the perceived lower standard of the IRL field, however, lessened his achievement. Also, this would end up being Calkins' single win in Indy car racing. Tony Stewart settled for second in what was his first start in an open-wheel, single seater race car, and Robbie Buhl also scored his first Indy car podium, improving on the sixth place he got at the 1993 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Mike Groff equalled his sixth place in the 1994 Valvoline 200 at Phoenix, while Lyn St. James scored what would be her only top-10 finish in Indy car racing, with an 8th-place finish.
- Lead changes: 6 among 6 drivers
Standings after the race