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Jimmy Vasser

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

The seventh feature of my latest series.

My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.

Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.

I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.

The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.

Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth. Behind the two Team Green cars was Jimmy Vasser in seventh, who is the subject of my next feature.

Like Paul Tracy before him, researching about Jimmy and his career has been thoroughly enjoyable and I have learnt a lot about him which I did not know before. It gives me a much greater appreciation of his achievements and what a fantastic experience it was to watch him in both 2001 and 2002.

Jimmy was born on the 20th November 1965 and began his car career in 1986 at the age of 20, a relatively late age to begin cars in comparison to drivers now. He contested the 1986 SCCA National Championship Runoffs Formula F championship, which he won.

He continued up the motorsport ladder into 1988 when he made his debut in Indy Lights contesting one race, finishing tenth, claiming three points. A year later Jimmy contested the Canadian Formula Ford 2000 Championship, in which he ended the year fifth.

Another season in Formula Ford 2000 Canada followed in which he won five times on his way to third in the standings, behind Bobby Carville and Ken Murillo, only missing out on the title by five points.

It was a similar story in 1991 as Jimmy moved to contest in the Toyota Formula Atlantic Championship, in which he won six times, narrowly missing out on the title by just four points.

His results did not go unnoticed as 1992 saw Jimmy make his CART debut, driving for Hayhoe-Cole Racing. Despite only one points finish that year, Jimmy made history as he became the fastest qualifying rookie of all time at that year’s Indy 500.

He remained with the team for the next two seasons, his results improving each year before his big move in 1995, which saw him join Chip Ganassi, replacing Newman/ Haas Racing bound Michael Andretti.

In his first season with the team, Jimmy finished a career high eighth on 92 points, claiming four podiums, which ensured he clearly beat his teammate Bryan Herta. It was a promising sign for Jimmy as he remained with Chip Ganassi for 1996, now joined by Italian Alex Zanardi, who joined the team after leaving the world of Formula 1. It was the first season of the CART-IRL split, which sadly meant Jimmy and the other CART regulars would not contest the Indy 500, the race being replaced by a 500 mile race around the Michigan International Speedway.

The duo was in a much improved team, with Jimmy winning four of the first six races, with Zanardi winning three. Unlike Jimmy’s seasons before, this was the fast start he needed, which he combined with consistent finishes for the remainder of the season. Despite not winning again that year, it ensured he won the 1996 CART title.

Jimmy during his title winning 1996 season.

Amazingly, it would prove to be the last for an American driver as 1997 and 1998 were won by Vasser’s teammate Zanardi. Although he relinquished his crown to his teammate, these two seasons were still a success for Jimmy, as he ended 1997 third behind Alex and Brazilian Gil de Ferran, while 1998 saw Jimmy end the year second, although the year was dominated by his Italian teammate.

During the two seasons, Jimmy added four wins to his tally however 1998 would prove to be his last season in the top three as he ended 1999 ninth, as his new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya won the IndyCar title at his first attempt.

The turn of the new millennium saw Jimmy remain with Chip Ganassi for what turned out to be his final season with the team. Jimmy ended the season sixth, adding a sole victory to his tally at Houston. 2000 also saw Jimmy and Chip Ganassi return to the Indy 500 for the first time since 1995, in a G-Force Oldsmobile chassis, finishing the race a respectable seventh.

It was the beginning of a shift of momentum towards the Indy Racing League, as Jimmy contested the 2001 Indy 500 with Chip Ganassi, finishing fourth, although he remained full time in CART joining Patrick Racing alongside Roberto Moreno.

Patrick Racing were a team steeped in history, winning the Indy 500 three times during the 1970s and 1980s, before winning the CART title as a team with drivers Gordon Johncock and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1976 and 1989. It was in 2001 that I first saw Jimmy at the 2001 Rockingham 500, a fantastic race in which he remained in the top 10 throughout it.

He ended the race seventh and twelfth in the overall standings, one place and one point ahead of Moreno in thirteenth. It was Jimmy’s sole season with Patrick Racing as he moved to Team Rahal for 2002, replacing Kenny Brack who switched outfits to Chip Ganassi.

It was his only season with Team Rahal, ending the year seventh, winning once at Auto Club, in what proved to be his final victory in motorsport.

Jimmy driving for Team Rahal during the 2002 season, one of my favourite liveries.

Two final full time seasons in CART and then Champ Car saw Jimmy finish eighth and sixth respectively. This was as the series was starting to lose momentum and after a single race in the 2006, Jimmy retired from full time motorsport.

Jimmy did make one final appearance at the 2008 Toyota Grand Prix at Long Beach in which he finished tenth for KV Racing Technology. It was his only appearance that season and was due to the reunification of American single seater racing, which saw a clash of dates between the Japan 300 and Long Beach. That is a separate feature entirely!

After leaving single seater racing, Jimmy contested the 24 Hours of Daytona twice in 2006 and 2007 as well as racing in 2008 Rolex Sports Car Championship at Laguna Seca for Bob Stallings Racing alongside fellow CART Champion, and former teammate at PKV Racing in 2005, Cristiano da Matta. The duo fared well, leading for ten laps at one stage however they failed to finished, eventually being classified 32nd.

This was Jimmy’s final competitive appearance behind the wheel however he still races classic events at fantastic circuits such as Road America. As well as his historic motorsport appearances, Jimmy is now the proud owner of V12 Vineyards, a vineyard he purchased from a former Chicken Ranch owner in 2001 and has developed since then.

A picture of Jimmy's vineyard in California, not a bad career to get into after motorsport!

The first vines were planted in 2006 after extensive local planning processes took several years to get through before the first harvest two years later. The name “V12” represents many different aspects of Jimmy’s life and career, with the V representing the Vasser name, the 12 being Jimmy’s championship winning number, with V12 being the most powerful block engine in production.

Jimmy predominantly sells Red Wine however he also sells one Chardonnay, ranging from $60 to $125, depending on age and uniqueness.

It has been great to research Jimmy and it makes me even happier that I got to see him race twice, even if these occasions were not at the peak of his career.



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