Alex Zanardi’s daring pass of Bryan Herta in Laguna Seca’s infamous Corkscrew Turn on the final lap to win the Bank of America 300 Sunday capped an incredible year for Chip Ganassi’s Target Indy car team.
While Zanardi, a Formula One driver recruited from Italy last fall by Ganassi, was winning his third race of the season in a Reynard-Honda, Target teammate Jimmy Vasser was cruising toward the PPG Cup Indy Car championship and its $1-million bonus. When neither Michael Andretti nor Al Unser Jr.--the only ones with a chance to beat Vasser--mounted a challenge, Vasser finished fourth to clinch the title.
Vasser’s championship and Zanardi’s victory from the pole were overshadowed, however, by what may be the most spectacular--and surprising--pass in Laguna Seca’s 39-year history. Unfortunately, it came at a point in the hillside course where only a handful of the record 65,000 fans saw it.
Herta, trying to win the first Indy car race of his career, had led for 40 laps in his Mercedes-powered Reynard and appeared to have little trouble holding off Zanardi. As Herta dipped into the tricky corner, less than a mile from the finish of the 186-mile race, Zanardi suddenly accelerated past him on the inside.
The inside line quickly becomes the outside where the Corkscrew tightens, and Zanardi was unable to keep his red Reynard-Honda on the track. His answer was to straighten out the Corkscrew--bounding over curbings, throwing dirt, getting airborne and barely missing a wall--until he shockingly reappeared on the race track, ahead of Herta and still in control of his car.
“It was unbelievable, wasn’t it?” Zanardi said excitedly. “I had been following Bryan for maybe 15 or 16 laps waiting for him to make a mistake, and he wouldn’t make one. But there was a lot of dirt on the course and I noticed that he was driving more carefully.
“I knew no one, not even Bryan, would expect a pass at that spot, and I also knew he couldn’t see me because he was dropping down the hill. I know I completely surprised him. It was very risky. There was very little percentage of success.”
A dejected Herta agreed with Zanardi’s assessment.
“It totally surprised me,” the second-place finisher said. “I’ve never been passed like that. Not there or anywhere. No one has. I don’t think I have ever been more disappointed in my life, but I have to hand it to Alex. He pulled it off.”
Zanardi’s victory from the pole earned him a $45,000 bonus to go with the $50,000 rookie-of-the-year award he clinched last week in Vancouver.
“To have three wins, six poles and lead the most laps  for the season is quite more than I ever expected when I accepted Chip’s offer to drive for him.” Zanardi said.
Vasser had never won an Indy car race before this year, his second with Ganassi. He won four of the first six, including the much publicized U.S. 500, and although he never came close to winning again he finished every race in an unusual show of consistency and durability.
“Hey, it’s the championship,” he shouted during victory ceremonies. “That has a nice ring to it. Wow, we did it.”
Also on the final lap, Scott Pruett passed Vasser for third place.
“After hearing about Alex’s pass, I have to say mine was quite uneventful,” Pruett said.