If you’re a race fan, it’s a great time to be alive. You already know that, but let’s reiterate: The four most successful drivers in Indy car history are still very much involved in the sport. Four active drivers rank among the top 12 all-time. A.J. Foyt and Michael Andretti own teams. Mario is a frequent visitor to races, where people still lose their minds when he rides by on a scooter.
If you think that’s all great, which it is, it just got even better. After a brief time away, Jimmy Vasser is back in the game, too, having joined James Sullivan and Dale Coyne to form Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan.
Why is that good? Simple. Passion is racing’s bedrock, it’s substance. And Jimmy Vasser is passionate to the point that he can’t just watch his sport. He must be involved. He discovered that in 2006 at Houston, his first time out of the car after a 236-race career. He wasn’t expecting his emotions to well up during the national anthem.
“I had this unexpected frog in my throat, holding back tears when they played the national anthem,” he said. “It just came at me. I wasn’t expecting it. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m emotional about it.’ It surprised me. I had always been like, ‘Oh well, I had a good run.’ But the emotion crept up on me, and I wasn’t expecting it.”
Same thing happened when KV Racing Technology disbanded after the 2016 season. Vasser showed up at Long Beach last year with little responsibility. No team, no meetings, no planning, no fun. And he was already attempting to change that.
“This is something that has been part of me basically my entire life,” he said. “I’ve been at every IndyCar race since ‘92, virtually. So, the season opener and no place to go or hang your hat and not having any real duties was tough. … Initially it was like, ‘Well, OK, I’ve got other things to do with my life and I’m just going to carry on,’ but then the season rolls around and you’re not in the game.”
If anyone should be in the game, it’s Vasser. His championship run in 1996 -- that crazy season in which he won four of the first six races for Chip Ganassi -- was motorized art. Two years later, he won three races and finished second to teammate Alex Zanardi in the championship.
But it’s his personality that makes Vasser such a valuable commodity to a sport constantly in search of the next sales pitch. If Paul Tracy has his chrome horn and Scott Dixon is an iceman, then Vasser is the party. His approach is serious yet carefree. He adds something that others don’t. He embraces the joy in what he’s accomplished and intends to accomplish in the future. He discovered that last year as he worked with Sullivan to perfect the details of the partnership with Coyne.
“I tuned in to races on TV,” he said. “It was a void in my life. I’m a racer. I need to have this back in my life. We were already working on the future at that point, but not being a part of it just gave me more fuel to find out what the next chapter is.”
The next chapter is somewhat like the previous chapter. Underdog team with immense potential. Vasser has done this before, and he’s done it with the driver he’s reuniting with, Sebastien Bourdais.
“I’ve been in underdog situations before, but you always feel like you can do it,” Vasser said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t try. I’ve always at least felt like this can be done. Dale’s passion is unmatched. He hasn’t missed a race in 30-some years. That was something Sully and I talked about. This guy is consistent. He’s there. He’s a racer’s racer. He was there no matter how difficult the situation might have been. We’re just lucky that he saw what we were thinking of and let us in. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. Assuming that lifetime is immersed in racing, of course.
“When we’re on the grid at St. Pete and we’re racing, that’s when I’ll feel like we’re back,” Vasser said. “The next step after that is getting on the podium. When we’re putting trophies on the shelf at the shop, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m back.”
And what a feeling it will be.