The Callahan Report: Zanardi Opens The Gap With A "Sloppy" Victory
18 August 1997ELKHART LAKE, WI: The name Elkhart Lake implies water. That is exactly what fans saw today at the Texaco Havoline 200. Rains delayed the start of the race for two and a half hours. Alex Zanardi swam to victory. His closest competitor in the series point race, Paul Tracy, splashed out of contention on the first lap. Zanardi has a 38 point lead in the title chase with only three races remaining. The victory was his fifth of the year and his fourth in the last five races.
Quick pit work and bad luck for his competitors were the order of he day for Zanardi. The Italian born driver spent only eleven seconds in the pits on his last stop. He charged out of the pits in the lead and was never seriously challenged for the remainder of the slosh fest.
After Paul Tracy went out early, Zanardi could have taken it easy. That would be out of character for the hottest driver on the CART circuit. He turned his fastest race lap in the last ten lap sequence of the speed show.
Tracy's crash on lap one was the most frightening off the day. Gualter Salles spun and stalled coming out of a corner in front of Tracy. The Marlboro driver swerved to avoid Salles and headed fast into the tire barriers. He ended upside down after the mud and mist settled. "I've been around racing since I was seven years old and I've never been upside down before, "Tracy said. "It's a pretty sad day for Marlboro Team Penske." He continued, "Gualter spun in front of me and I had to go one way or another. I already picked my line and I couldn't change direction. I didn't have anywhere to go. It seems like we can't buy any luck right now."
Other drivers with a mathematical chance of catching Zanardi for the championship slid into oblivion as the race wore on. Greg Moore took a chance by diving under Bobby Rahal in one of the slick corners. The gamble did not pay off. Moore apologized to his crew for making the move. His day was done.
Another contender, Michael Andretti slid off track within a lap of switching to slick tires. His car was undamaged, but he would need winch mounted on the front of his Swift chassis to get out of the deep gravel trap. "I still believe it was the right decision to switch to slick tires when I did. I don't regret it, but I do regret making the mistake," Andretti said. He continued, "I blew it. The championship is out the window. I know it was my fault. It's going to be a long night."
While Andretti had bad luck, his teammate couldn't have been classier. Christian Fittipaldi became a passing machine as he went from 18th starting spot to 4th at the finish. He did it with a car that was less than optimal. "The electronics were broken the last half of the race so we were down about 30 horsepower," said Fittipaldi. "I had to lift off the throttle every time in order to shift because the gear wouldn't go in because the engine wouldn't cut out. That forced me to be lose a lot of the time." Losing time or not.... he put on an excellent driving exhibition.
Polesitter Mauricio Gugelmin hung on all day and was close at the end. He finished just six seconds behind Zanardi. His teammate and two time 1997 winner, Mark Blundell, was the leader for much of the wet race. Blundell was sidelined late with an engine fire. Blundell was running second at the time of the fire. He finished in 16th place.
The crowd was down due to the rains. Approximately 50,000 fans watched Zanardi perform his patented "donuts" as part of his victory celebration. The CART rules makers requested recently Zanardi abandon his tire smoking victory festivities in the interest of safety. The donuts are fine. CART should put their safety concerns elsewhere. In a late race spin, driver Arnd Meier's car jumped a guardrail and nearly plowed into a group of spectators. CART and Road America should consider themselves lucky. The day could have been dark and dreary for reasons other than the weather.