See also 1996 Indy Racing League season
The seeds of the IRL/CART "split" were planted in the early 1990s, when newly named Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George began exploring options of changes in the sport of Indy cars. Sharply rising costs, the lack of many ovals on the schedule, and the dwindling number of American participants were among his stated concerns. As early as May 1991, George announced intentions to change the engine formula to 3.5L normally aspirated powerplants (essentially the same engines used in Formula One at the time), a plan that never got past the planning stages. George joined the CART board of directors from 1992-1994 as a non-voting member. He resigned after the brief tenure, disagreeing with the direction of the series.
In the summer of 1994, George announced he was going to start a new series, the Indy Racing League, with the Indianapolis 500 as its centerpiece. CART had sanctioned the sport of Indy car racing since 1979, with the sole exception of the Indianapolis 500 itself, which was sanctioned singly by USAC. However, an arrangement had been in place since the early 1980s to recognize the Indy 500 on the CART schedule, and the points would be awarded towards the CART championship.
George blueprinted the IRL as a lower-cost alternative to CART, with an emphasis on attracting American drivers, an all-oval schedule, and new cars with normally-aspirated, "production-based" engines. As a result, the Indy 500 would no longer be recognized on the CART calendar, and the machines currently used in the CART series would no longer be allowed at the Speedway starting in 1997.
Almost immediately, a turbulent political controversy erupted, with participants, media, fans, manufacturers, and sponsors all apprehensive of the sport's direction and pending shakeup. The prevailing opinion around the CART paddock was largely negative regarding the formation of the IRL. The 1995 season and 1995 Indy 500 were held as normal, but under a growing cloud of uncertainty about the future of the sport. During the summer of 1995, and into the offseason, the two factions of CART and the IRL were unable to reconcile on much of anything, and the "split" began to take shape. The biggest salvo was made on July 3, 1995, when IRL officials announced that the top 25 drivers in IRL points would be guaranteed starting positions in the 1996 Indy 500.
On December 18, 1995 CART teams, convinced they were being deliberately locked out from the 1996 Indy 500, and the victims of a "power grab" by Tony George, announced their intentions to boycott the event. They jointly announced plans for a new race, the Inaugural U.S. 500, to be held at Michigan International Speedway the same day.
The official reaction from IMS/IRL was one of disappointment and dismay, suggesting that CART was preparing to do considerable damage to Indy car racing. CART participants were convinced of the opposite. The only CART teams that entered were Galles and Walker, but neither fielded their regular full-time CART drivers. Galles fielded an Ilmor Mercedes (the only Mercedes entered) in a one-off entry for Davy Jones, while Walker entered a car in the race for Mike Groff.
Defending Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve switched to Formula One and signed with the Williams team during the offseason, and irrespective of the "split," would not return to Indy for 1996. It marked the second year in a row the defending champion would not race in the 500. A year earlier, 1994 winner Al Unser, Jr. failed to qualify. With the recent retirements of several Indy legends, as well as active drivers Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. who were at the CART race at Michigan, the only former Indy winner entered as a driver would be Arie Luyendyk.
For the 1996 IRL season, USAC implemented a rules freeze, and adopted a rules package largely identical to the one used for the 1995 race, with only a few minor technical revisions. The move made such that the race would be contested with 1992-1995 model year, CART-based chassis (namely Lola and Reynard). The 1996 model-year chassis being used in CART were not approved, further splintering the rift between the two camps. Apropos to the situation, many IRL teams actually purchased 1994 and 1995 model-year chassis from rival CART teams.
As had been allowed for several years, the "stock block" production-based engines (e.g. Buick & Menard) would be allowed 55 inHG, and the OHC 2.65L V-8 engines (Ford Cosworth-XB and Ilmor "D") would stay at 45 inches. While they were not even used in 1995, the 209 cid purpose-built pushrod engines (e.g., the Mercedes-Benz 500I) were formally banned for 1996.
The two-year-old Indy car "tire war" was embraced by the IRL. Both Goodyear and Firestone provided tires.
The minimum age rule for drivers in 1996 was changed from 21 to 18.
For the 1996 Indy 500, 25 (of 33) starting grid positions were set aside for the top 25 cars in 1996 season IRL points standings. The arrangement was a controversial rule, known as the "25/8 Rule," and was a key issue that led the CART teams to boycott the race.
The format (similar in practice to NASCAR's Top 35 rule introduced years later) provided that the top 25 entries (not drivers) in owner points were guaranteed a "locked-in" starting position, and could not be bumped, provided they completed a four-lap qualifying run over a minimum prescribed speed. Officials set 220 mph as the minimum. The grid would still be arranged by speed rank. The pole position would still be the fastest car on the first day of qualifying (or first trip through the qualifying order), regardless of "locked-in" status. The remaining eight positions would be filled by non-top 25 "at-large" entries, and bumping could only occur amongst those participants.
Going into the race, the 25 entries that were eligible for a "locked-in" starting position were#2 Team Menard (Scott Brayton; withdrawn, see below)
#3 Team Menard (Eddie Cheever)
#4 Della Penna Motorsports (Richie Hearn)
#5 Jonathan Byrd/Treadway Racing (Arie Luyendyk)
#7 Team Scandia (Eliseo Salazar; qualified #34, changed to #7 for race day)
#9 Hemelgarn Racing (Stéphan Grégoire)
#11 A. J. Foyt Enterprises (Scott Sharp)
#12 Bradley Motorsports (Buzz Calkins)
#14 A. J. Foyt Enterprises (Davey Hamilton)
#16 Team Blueprint Racing (Johnny Parsons)
#18 PDM Racing (John Paul, Jr.)
#20 Team Menard (Tony Stewart)
#21 Pagan Racing (Roberto Guerrero)
#22 Team Scandia (Michel Jourdain, Jr. - swapped berth with #33 Michele Alboreto)
#27 Team Blueprint Racing (Jim Guthrie)
#45 ZunneGroup Racing (Lyn St. James)
#54 Beck Motorsports (Robbie Buhl)
#64 Project Indy (Johnny Unser)
#75 Cunningham Racing (Johnny O'Connell)
#90 Team Scandia (St. James was listed on the entry; Racin Gardner was later named to the seat)
#91 Hemelgarn Racing (Buddy Lazier)
The following three "locked-in" entries practiced limitedly, but made no attempts to qualify:#15 Tempero-Guiffre Racing (Dave Kudrave named on entry; Joe Gosek & Justin Bell took practice laps)
#25 Tempero-Guiffre Racing (Joe Gosek practiced in the car)
#41 A. J. Foyt Enterprises (status unknown; possibly swapped berth with the #84 for Billy Boat)
The following "locked-in" entry did not take any practice laps:#17 Leigh Miller Racing (no driver named)
Since four of the "locked-in" entries made no attempt to qualify, only 21 of the positions were initially "locked-in." After Scott Brayton withdrew his already-qualified car on pole day, he forfeited his "locked-in" status, and qualified as an "at-large" entry.
Therefore, only 20 of the 33 starting positions were locked-in. The field included 13 at-large entries. The 1996 U.S. 500 had 29 starting drivers.
Rookie orientation was scheduled for Opening Day. However, rain washed out the entire first day of practice.
Opening day was reserved for rookie orientation, largely due to the overwhelming number of Indy 500 rookies entered. A cool morning saw only a half-hour of practice amongst nine cars. Rain closed the track for the day at 9:35 a.m. Rookie Tony Stewart led the abbreviated session with a lap of 193.957 mph.
Rain hampered practice for the third day in a row, however, activity was heavy throughout the day, with many drivers looking to finish their rookie tests. At 9:19 a.m., Tony Stewart ran the fastest lap ever at the Speedway by a rookie, at 231.774 mph. Later in the day, he upped the fastest lap of the month to 237.336 mph, which broke the existing unofficial track record.
Several drivers completed all four phases of their rookie tests, including Stewart, Mark Dismore, Buzz Calkins, Michel Jourdain, Jr., Michele Alboreto, Richie Hearn, Racin Gardner, Randy Tolsma, Dan Drinan, Brad Murphey, and Jim Guthrie.
Off the track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against CART to protect the "IndyCar" trademark. IMS officials deemed that CART, who was organizing the rival U.S. 500, was failing to comply with the license agreement under which they received permission to use the "IndyCar" trademark.
Rain once again fell at the Speedway, and opening of the practice was delayed until 2:30 p.m. Veterans took to the track for the first time, with Menard teammates Scott Brayton and Eddie Cheever quickly setting the pace at over 235 mph and 233 mph, respectively.
Johnny Unser and Paul Durant both competed their rookie tests, bringing the total to 13 rookies.
Late in the day, Arie Luyendyk moved up to the top five, with a lap of 232.162 mph. The Menard team, however, swept the top three on the speed chart, when Tony Stewart topped 236.121 mph.
Rain washed out practice for the day, the second day of the month completely lost to weather.
A windy but warm day saw heavy action. Arie Luyendyk ran the fastest practice lap in Speedway history, 237.774 mph. The three Menard entries (Stewart, Cheever, and Brayton) were all over 234 mph. Several other drivers cracked the 230 mph barrier, including Buddy Lazier, Davy Jones, and Scott Sharp.
"Fast Friday," the final day of practice before time trials saw the fastest laps turned in Indy history. Shortly after the track opened, Scott Brayton ran his fastest lap of the month, 235.688 mph. Tony Stewart ran a 236.004 mph, while Scott Sharp ran a 235.300 mph lap.
At 12:29 p.m., Arie Luyendyk completed a lap at 238.045 mph, the fastest lap thus far during the month. A half hour later, he ran the fastest practice lap in Speedway history, 239.260 mph (37.616 seconds). Luyendyk's lap was 0.106 seconds shy of the elusive 240 mph barrier, and as of 2015, still stands as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one-lap unofficial track record.
At 3:25 p.m., rain closed the track for the day.
Pole day dawned cold and rainy. The track opened for practice at 11:55 a.m., with 24 cars taking to the track. Johnny Parsons crashed in turn 3, while Arie Luyendyk stalled with engine trouble. Tony Stewart ran the fastest practice lap of the morning, at 235.719 mph.
Pole day time trials began at 2 p.m. Lyn St. James was the first car to qualify, completing her four-lap run at 224.594 mph. Buddy Lazier then grabbed the provisional pole at 231.468 mph. Twenty minutes later, Davy Jones broke the 1 and 4 lap track records, completing a run at 232.882 mph. The speed broke Roberto Guerrero's 1992 track record.
Tony Stewart bumped Jones off the pole with another new track record, 233.100 mph. Stewart became the first rookie to hold both the 1 and 4 lap track records since Teo Fabi in 1983. His Menard teammates Eddie Cheever (231.781 mph) and Scott Brayton (231.535 mph) also put in respectable runs, but neither were fast enough for the pole. Eliseo Salazar just missed making the front row at 232.684 mph.
By 5 p.m., the field was filled to 20 cars, 15 of which were "locked-in" entries. With 33 minutes left in the day, Arie Luyendyk took to the track, and set new all-time track records. A one-lap record of 234.742 mph, and a four-lap average of 233.390 mph. With no other contenders in line, it appeared Luyendyk had secured his second Indy 500 pole. Stewart and Jones tentatively rounded out the front row.
Suddenly, Team Menard began scrambling, and Scott Brayton was back on pit road with helmet in hand. The team withdrew their already-qualified car #2, and Brayton was preparing to re-qualify in a back-up car. By withdrawing car #2, the team forfeited their "locked-in" status, however, Brayton would now be again eligible for the pole. The risky and bold move shocked many in attendance, and fans were anxious to see if Brayton's gamble would pay off. Brayton's four-lap average of 233.718 mph was just fast enough to take the pole position, and set yet another 4-lap track record. Luyendyk's one-lap record of 234.742 mph, however, still stood. At the 6 o'clock gun, Scott Brayton officially accepted his second straight Indy 500 pole position award. Luyendyk and Stewart now rounded out the front row.
At 7:45 p.m., USAC chief steward Keith Ward announced that Arie Luyendyk's car failed post-qualifying inspection. The car was 7 pounds underweight, and was disqualified. The ruling elevated Tony Stewart to second place, and nullified Luyendyk's standing one-lap track record. Scott Brayton's fast lap of 233.851 mph now stood as the official one-lap record, alongside his 4-lap record of 233.718 mph.
After being disqualified the night before, Arie Luyendyk returned to the track on the second day of time trials. He set track records on all four laps.Lap 1: 38.097 seconds, 236.239 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 2: 37.983 seconds, 236.948 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 3: 37.933 seconds, 237.260 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 4: 37.895 seconds, 237.498 mph (all-time 1-lap track record)
Total- 2:31.908, 236.986 mph (all-time 4-lap track record)
Luyendyk's run made him the fastest qualifier in the field, however, as a second-day qualifier, he was forced to line up 20th (behind the first-day qualifiers). Luyendyk's one and four lap track records still stand as of 2015.
By the end of the day, the field was filled to 26 cars. Of the 24 now cars eligible for "locked-in" positions, 18 had completed qualifying runs. Among the second day qualifiers were Scott Sharp and Robbie Buhl.
A light day of activity saw Tony Stewart lead the speed chart at 235.837 mph. Johnny O'Connell (216.024 mph) led the non-qualified cars.
Brad Murphey led the non-qualified cars with a fast lap of 228.612 mph. Arie Luyendyk led all cars with a lap of 238.493 mph, faster than his official track record, and the second-fastest practice lap in Indy history.
Rookies Billy Boat and Andy Michner took their first practice laps of the month.
Rain washed out practice for the day. It marked the third entire day lost to rain, and the eighth overall hampered by the weather.
A fairly busy day saw 22 cars take nearly 900 laps. Scott Harrington and Billy Boat passed their rookie tests, but Harrington later crashed in turn three.
Arie Luyendyk once again led the speed chart, at 234.540 mph. Brad Murphey (225.875 mph) was the fastest of the non-qualified cars, with Johnny O'Connell also over 225 mph.
At 12:17 p.m., Scott Brayton, testing a back-up car, did a half-spin in the middle of turn two, and crashed hard into the outside wall exiting the turn. The car slid 600 feet to a stop down the backstretch. Brayton was found unconscious in the car, and was transported immediately to Methodist Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 12:50 p.m. EST. Brayton was killed instantly of basilar skull fracture.
The death cast a pall over the Speedway, and the entire racing community. It was determined that Brayton likely ran over a piece of debris in turn four or the mainstretch, which punctured his right rear tire. Unaware of the debris, he completed the lap at 228.606 mph, then drove into turn one. The tire suffered rapid deflation in the southchute and in turn two, causing the car to lose control.
The official report of fatality was not announced until 4 p.m. In the meantime, unaware of Brayton's condition, some other drivers resumed practice for a time. Arie Luyendyk posted the fastest lap overall at 234.870 mph, and Brad Murphey (228.548 mph) was the fastest of the non-qualified cars. When the news was released, nearly all participants stopped for the day.
Track activity resumed after Friday's tragedy. Dan Drinan survived a scary morning crash in turn one during the practice session. When Day 3 time trials began, Billy Boat (221.824 mph) became the first driver to complete a run, in the #99 Pagan Racing "at-large" entry. By the end of the day, the field was filled to 31 cars.
Team Menard announced that Danny Ongais will drive the #2 entry, vacated after the death of Scott Brayton Due to the replacement, the car will be moved to the back of the field, elevating Tony Stewart to the pole position.
With two positions open, veteran Hideshi Matsuda arrived at the track for the first time all month, and was quickly practicing over 227 mph. At 4 p.m., Matsuda driving an "at-large" entry, put his car safely in the field at 226.859 mph.
Late in the day, Billy Boat was practicing in the #84 Foyt entry. Boat had already qualified the #99 Pagan entry, but was the slowest car in the field and had no "locked-in" berth. At 5:24 p.m., he crashed in turn 1, and suffered a leg injury. he would not be able to re-qualify if his car was bumped.
With 23 minutes to go, Scott Harrington filled the field with a run of 222.185 mph. That put the injured Billy Boat (221.824 mph) on the bubble. Minutes later, Joe Gosek bumped Boat out with a run of 222.793 mph. That dropped Harrington to the bubble spot. In the closing minutes, Tyce Carlson made two attempts, but was too slow to bump his way into the field.
Despite the controversy regarding the "locked-in" entries, the "fastest 33 cars" did manage to make the field, and one bump did occur. None of the "locked-in" entries qualified slower than the slowest "at-large" entry, nor did any fail to meet the 220 mph requirement.
The final practice session was scheduled for Thursday May 23. Rain delayed the start of final practice until 12:52 p.m. Stéphan Grégoire suffered an oil leak, Brad Murphey coasted back to the pits with low oil pressure, Paul Durant suffered a blown engine, and Buzz Calkins had a minor pit fire. The most serious incident of the day involved Johnny Unser, who crashed in turn 4. Damage was moderate, and Unser was not injured.
Rain stopped the session at 1:49 p.m., and Tony Stewart (231.273 mph) was the fastest car of the day.
Later in the afternoon, Team Galles won the Coors Pit Stop Contest with driver Davy Jones and chief mechanic Mitch Davis.
Scott Brayton officially qualified for the pole position, but was killed in a practice crash on May 17. Danny Ongais substituted in the car on race day; in accordance with USAC rules Ongais had to start at the rear of the field.
First alternate: Billy Boat (#99) - Bumped
Second alternate: Tyce Carlson (#77) - Too slow
(R)-Indianapolis 500 Rookie, (W)-Former Indianapolis 500 Winner
Morning rain threatened to delay the start, but the track was dried, and the schedule was only pushed back by about 5 minutes. Mary Fendrich Hulman gave the starting command just before 11 a.m. EST, and after some hesitation, the field pulled away for the pace laps. It would be the final time Hulman would give the starting command for the "500." Danny Ongais (driving Scott Brayton's car) lagged behind the field, and drove one memorial parade lap alone to salute Brayton's memory.
During the first parade lap, Hideshi Matsuda stalled on the frontstretch, and was pushed to the pits. He would re-join the field for the pace lap. On the second parade lap, Johnny Unser coasted into the pits with a transmission failure, and dropped out before the green flag.
A conservative, slow, ragged start saw Tony Stewart take the lead into turn one. Mark Dismore did a half-spin in turn one, and kicked up mud from the infield. Most of the field completed the first lap at a slow pace, but Stewart completed the lap over 208 mph. After two laps, Stewart was running a record pace of 221.965 mph. Mark Dismore ducked into the pits to check the car over. The racing was short-lived, as debris from the Dismore incident brought out the yellow on lap 3.
Under the yellow, Scott Harrington was catching up to the tail-end of the field down the backstretch, but approached too quickly. He locked up the brakes, nearly hit three cars, and spun undamaged into the warm-up lane.
Arie Luyendyk began charging through the field, and by lap 10, was already amongst the top ten. Two spins slowed the early running. Paul Durant blew an engine down the backstretch on lap 11, ducked into the warm-up lane, but spun in his own fluid. On the restart, Danny Ongais lost control, and spun harmlessly through turn four.
Tony Stewart set a rookie record by leading the first 31 laps. His day ended on lap 82, however, when he lost an engine, due to a bad pop-off valve. Despite not finishing, he secured the rookie of the year award.
Roberto Guerrero came to the lead after Stewart dropped out. During his second pit stop, however, the fuel nozzle malfunctioned, and his stop lasted over a minute. Luyendyk, battling pushing condition, brushed the wall on lap 62, but still picked his way to the front, running second to Buddy Lazier.
On lap 94, the caution came out after a crash by Brad Murphey, and the leaders headed to the pits. Buddy Lazier exited first, while Arie Luyendyk stalled. Luyendyk lost a few seconds as he refired. As he entered the warm-up lane he was side-by-side with Eliseo Salazar. In turn one, Salazar intentionally turned down on Luyendyk, the cars touched, and Salazar went spinning wildly through the grass and out onto the track itself. Luyendyk suffered a damaged nosecone, broken suspension, broken bodywork, and eventually dropped out of the race. Salazar's car also suffered damage, but he was repaired, and continued a couple laps down.
With Luyendyk, the lone former winner, out of the race, the race would be won by a first-time winner.
Davy Jones, Buddy Lazier, and Roberto Guerrero took command of the race in the second half. Attrition started dwindling the field, with several cars dropping out with mechanical trouble.
On lap 160-161, the leaders began making green flag pit stops. Looking to possibly go the entire distance, Roberto Guerrero, followed by Jones, took on fuel and four tires. Jones' faster stop put him several seconds ahead. However, if the race stayed green, Jones and Guerrero were expected to run out of fuel in the final two laps. Moments later, Scott Harrington and Lyn St. James touched wheels in turn one, and crashed hard into the outside wall.
The caution brought some cars into the pits to top off the fuel. Buddy Lazier was able to make his final scheduled stop under yellow on lap 167, and would have new tires and plenty of fuel to make the distance. Guerrero also ducked into the pits to top the car off. The refueler inserted the nozzle awkwardly, fuel spilled, and the car caught fire. He started to climb out of the car, but it was determined the car was OK to continue, and it was restarted. In the melee, he lost a lap and his two-way radio became disconnected. Jones stayed out, gambling on fuel, and took over the lead.
On lap 169, the field came out of turn four for a restart with Jones leading Alessandro Zampedri now second, Richie Hearn third, and Lazier (4th) the final car on the lead lap. Guerrero was now a lap down in 5th. The lapped car of Eliseo Salazar was lined up just in front of Jones. As the green came out, Salazar blocked Jones exiting turn four. Down the frontstretch, Jones attempted to pass Salazar, but Salazar swiped to the inside, forcing Jones to brush the inside wall. Zampedri (Salazar's teammate) quickly took over the lead.
In the pit area, owner Andy Evans admitted that Salazar's move was intentional, as he was blocking Jones to help Zampedri. It was Salazar's second controversial, unsportsmanlike move of the race.
With just over ten laps to go, Alessandro Zampedri led Davy Jones and Buddy Lazier. All three cars ran close together. Zampedri began suffering handling problems, and Jones took the lead back on lap 190. One lap later, Lazier passed Zampedri on the outside going into turn three to take over second place. Lazier was now the fastest car on the track.
With less than 9 laps to go, Jones was forced to go lean and conserve fuel, and was nursing possible suspension damage from the Salazar incident. Lazier, however, was running full-rich, and reeled him in quickly. He passed Jones for the lead down the front stretch with 8 laps to go. Lazier began to pull away, and ran a lap of 232.9 mph.
On lap 194, Eddie Cheever in one of the remaining Menard entries began smoking in turn two, which laid down fluid on the track. Two laps later, Scott Sharp spun, and crashed into the inside wall. The yellow came out with Lazier leading, and a lap car between him and Jones who was in second. Track crews quickly cleaned up the incident. As they completed lap 198, USAC flagman Duane Sweeney indicated they would go back to green for the final lap.
As the field came off turn four on the 199th lap, the white flag and green flag were displayed at the starter's stand. Lazier accelerated into turn one. Jones passed the lap car of Jourdain down the backstretch. Lazier held off the challenge to win his first Indy 500 and first Indy car race.
As the leaders crossed the finish line, a serious crash occurred further back in the field. Fifth-place Roberto Guerrero was running without a two-way radio (it became disconnected during his pit fire), and was not aware he was a lap ahead of sixth place. Running hard on the final lap, he spun in turn 4 and slid in front of the cars of Zampedri and Eliseo Salazar. Zampedri's car was pushed up, and flew up into the catch fence. Salazar slid underneath Zampedri's car, and wrecked into the outside wall. Guerrero slid down the track, and came to rest in the pit area. Zampedri suffered serious injuries to his wrist and feet.
At the conclusion of the race, Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins ended up tied for first place in the season championship, and were declared co-champions for the inaugural IRL season.
Lazier's victory would be the final Indy 500 victory to-date (2016) for a Ford-badged engine. Ford-Cosworth somewhat grudgingly provided engines to the IRL for the five 1996 races, but generally sided with CART during open-wheel racing split. The company did consult with the IRL during planning stages for the 1997 normally aspirated engine formula, but ultimately elected not to build engines to those specs. Ford-Cosworth continued to focus on CART and Champ Car, eventually ending its support after 2007.C Chassis: L=Lola, R=Reynard
E Engine: B=Buick, F=Cosworth-Ford, M=Menard (Buick), MB=Ilmor Mercedes-Benz
T Tire: F=Firestone, G=Goodyear