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Memories: 1995

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The Year of Youth in Auto Racing

The Associated Press
December 20, 1995

Youth was truly served in auto racing during the 1995 season.

There was plenty of competition in every major division, but when the dust had cleared, the champions were 24-year-old Jacques Villeneuve, 24-year-old Jeff Gordon and 26-year-old Michael Schumacher.

Villeneuve, the son of former Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve who was killed in a crash in Belgium in 1982, came out of a promising rookie season in 1994 to blaze a path to the top this season.

He won four races, including the Indianapolis 500, six poles and held off defending IndyCar PPG Cup champion Al Unser Jr. to win the title.

“I am young, but I have been driving race cars for a long time already,” said Villeneuve, who was born in Canada but raised in Europe. “Indy-car racing is very challenging because there is so much competition, but I had the right team (Team Green) and the right equipment to win.”

As for his bloodlines, Villeneuve said, “I did not go into racing because of my father. We did not talk about racing. But, obviously, it is in my blood.”

Even before the season ended, Villeneuve had announced he was leaving the Indy-car series to try his hand next season in Formula One — the arena where his father was a revered figure.

“It is not that I want to leave,” he said. “It is just that in motor racing you must take the opportunities when they are presented, if they are the right opportunities. You do not often get a second chance.”

Gordon’s father was not a racer but his success has been every bit as dramatic.

The California native, whose family moved to Indiana when Gordon was a teen-ager so he could race without needing a license, outran all of his elders in NASCAR’s premier Winston Cup series, holding off a late-season charge by seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt to win the title by 34 points.

Gordon was solid all season, winning a series-leading seven races and eight poles, and collecting 17 top-fives and 23 top-10s in 31 starts. His success produced the first $4 million year in racing history, including nearly $2 million in season-ending bonuses.

Schumacher, the German equivalent of Villeneuve and Gordon, had an even better season than the other two, winning a record-tying nine races — matching Nigel Mansell’s mark in 1992 — and becoming only the seventh Formula One driver to win successive championships.

“It was a dream season,” said Schumacher, the first German driver to win that country’s Grand Prix. He added a win later in the season at Nurburgring, the first race at that venerated German venue in 10 years.

Like Villeneuve, who will be among his competitors, Schumacher will change teams in 1996, moving from Benetton to Ferrari for a reported two-year contract worth an unprecedented $48 million.

The Indy-car season was tremendously competitive, with eight winners in 17 races, but Villeneuve’s win at Indianapolis set the stage for his championship season.

The youngster made up two lost laps during the 500-mile race to put himself in a position to win, which he did because fellow Canadian Scott Goodyear made a major mistake, passing the pace car under a caution flag during a late-race restart. When Goodyear was penalized, Villeneuve cruised home with an easy win and pocketed the winner’s share of $1.3 million from the record race purse of $8,063,550.

Besides Goodyear, Indy was a nightmare for several other drivers.

Stan Fox was left in a coma with serious head injuries after a terrifying first-lap crash, and Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi, the drivers for Team Penske, the most successful team in Indy 500 history with 10 wins and 11 poles, failed to qualify.

Fox has made a startling recovery, walking out of the hospital after a five-week stay and continuing his steady physical and mental improvement.

For Unser, whose family had been represented by at least one driver in the famed May race every year since 1962 and whose victory total is nine, it was a crushing blow to miss Indy. It was almost as bad for Fittipaldi, like Unser a two-time Indy winner.

Unser, who briefly went into seclusion at his family home in Albuquerque, N.M., said, “I just don’t know what to say. Who could have expected this?”

“This was like having the hand of God placed upon you,” Fittipaldi said. “God was telling me there was a reason for not being in that race.”

It dampened the entire season for Roger Penske and his team. Unser’s late-season run at the title came up short despite a victory off the track in September in a successful appeal that gave him back a victory at Portland, Ore., where IndyCar officials had ruled his car had a technical violation and was disqualified.

Over in NASCAR, the comeback story of the year was taking place. Ernie Irvan, who was nearly killed in a crash on Aug. 20, 1994, at Michigan International Speedway, was getting back on track.

Irvan wore a black patch on his left eye, and the only remnant of his horrific crash that left him with critical head and chest injuries was double vision. He got back into a Winston Cup car, qualified seventh, led 31 laps and finished sixth in the Oct. 1 race at North Wilkesboro.

“I told everyone I knew I could do it, but I really didn’t,” Irvan said. “Now I know I can.”

He raced twice more before the season ended, leading at Phoenix before an engine problem ended his day. He finished seventh at Atlanta in the final race.

Irvan will go back to his full-time ride next season, switching cars with new teammate Dale Jarrett, who was hired to take Irvan’s place in 1995 and will now be part of a two-car team at Robert Yates Racing.

In the biggest events of the 1995 NASCAR season, Sterling Marlin won the Daytona 500 for the second straight year, Mark Martin won the Winston Select 500 at Talladega, Bobby Labonte the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Earnhardt the Brickyard 400 at Indy and Gordon the Southern 500 at Darlington.

In IndyCar, it was Scott Pruett winning the Marlboro 500 at Michigan, giving Firestone one of its two victories in its comeback season as a competitor to established tire provider Goodyear.

Behind the hugely successful Indy-car season, though, was a dark undercurrent produced by the announcement that Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was forming the Indy Racing League as a competitor to IndyCar in 1996.

The battle lines were drawn when George announced the IRL’s inaugural five-race schedule, beginning with a race at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 27. The war was widened when he announced that 25 of the 33 starting positions in the 1996 Indy 500 will go to teams competing in the IRL, leaving only eight at-large spots for the IndyCar competitors to fight for.

© 1995 The Associated Press

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