PORTLAND — Back in 1995, it looked like Jimmy Vasser had won his first series race at Portland International Raceway, after Al Unser Jr. was disqualified. Unser’s victory was later reinstated, however, and Vasser would have to wait a year for his first win.
Vasser returns to the scene of his “almost” win this weekend for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland. In 12 starts on the 1.969-mile road course, Vasser has never finished better than runner-up.
This start, however, is significant to Vasser because it is his 208th — tying him for fifth on the series career list with Mario Andretti. Vasser is poised to pass Andretti at the Grand Prix of Cleveland the first weekend in July.
Portland brings mixed memories for Vasser, who first raced in the city as a kid back in 1975.
Vasser won a grand national quarter-midget race at Portland’s Alpenrose Dairy. Vasser claimed three straight national quarter-midget championships.
Then in 1995, Vasser celebrated his first series victory in Portland when Unser was disqualified in the post-race inspection.
But Unser’s team owner, Roger Penske, appealed, and an arbitrator later ruled in his favor.
“I thought I won the race here in 1995, I thought I won my first race,” Vasser said, shaking his head at the memory. “But then Roger Penske snatched it away from me in the courts.”
The next year was better.
Vasser went on to win the 1996 CART points title while driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing and has finished in the top 10 in points eight of the last nine years. He’s been one of the series’ mainstays since the Indy Racing League split from CART in 1996.
With 10 overall career victories, a win at Portland would be a nice addition to his resume.
“It’s regarded as one of the top road courses in the nation,” he said.
The series first came to Portland in 1984. Its return this season had been in question when CART declared bankruptcy last season, but team owners Paul Gentilozzi, Gerald Forsythe and Kalkhoven stepped forward and bought CART’s assets in February to keep the series alive.
With no title sponsor for the Portland event, the new Champ Car World Series is spending $3 million to bring the race back to the city.
This weekend’s event is the fourth on the series schedule. Young American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is coming off a dominant win at the Milwaukee Mile two weeks ago.
Hunter-Reay, currently third in a tight points race, is hoping to carry a bit of that momentum into Sunday’s 94-lap, 186.08-mile race at the permanent road course just north of downtown Portland.
“It’s a very challenging course — especially over the distance of the race,” he said. “It’s hard on your neck and shoulders.”
Bruno Junqueira leads the points standings with 76, just a point ahead of Patrick Carpentier. Hunter-Reay is third with 66.
Known for drizzly conditions, the forecast for the Grand Prix was for sunny skies and hot temperatures in the 90s.
Under cloudy and cool conditions last year, Adrian Fernandez took advantage of polesitter Paul Tracy’s five-second penalty on his final pit stop for the winning pass and his eighth and final Champ car victory. Fernandez left the series for the IRL this March.
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