Thirty years ago, on the Mid-Ohio speedway, the fastest open-wheel American machines and the best sports prototypes met in the most unlikely competition.
From a chronological standpoint, IMSA was the first major series to race at Mid-Ohio in 1991, where Tommy Kendall took pole position in his MTI Racing Chevy Intrepid RM-1 with a lap of 1m12.611s in June. In September, for the CART IndyCar Series race, the challenge was posed by Michael Andretti, who set a new lap record for the 2.2-mile circuit with a remarkable lap of 1m9.475s in his Newman/Haas Racing Lola T91/00. -Chevy. (main image, represented in Laguna Seca). The margin between the two rockets was 3.136 s.
For the sake of modern comparison, Josef Newgarden took pole in last year’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio with a lap of 1m06.674s in his No. 2 Team Penske Chevy. Six weeks earlier, IMSA was in Mid-Ohio for its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event where Mazda Motorsports’ Harry Tincknell won the pole in his No. 55 RT24-P DPi with a lap of 1:10.027s, some 3.353s slower than Newgarden. in their Dallara DW12 Chassis, and almost a match for the gap from IndyCar to IMSA since 1991.
It is in the transition to 1992 where tears appear in the space-time continuum.
Once again, IMSA was first on the schedule at Mid-Ohio and during a rain-filled weekend in May, something remarkable happened when it came time for qualifying. Armed with the groundbreaking Jaguar XJR-14, a GTP car that has often been hailed as a Formula 1 car disguised as a prototype, TWR USA’s Davy Jones set Kendall’s 1991 pole time of 1:12.611s and took 2.755s with a time of 1:9.856 delivered in his otherworldly Jag.
If erasing the previous GTP pole wasn’t enough of a year-over-year feat, Jones and the XJR-14 came within 0.381s of the overall track record set by Andretti in his Indy car. And while Jones’ lap easily captured pole for the IMSA race, it was also good enough to earn him second place on the 1991 CART grid at Mid-Ohio, beating front-row starter Rick Mears by 0.150s. with the 1m10.006s he achieved. the Penske Racing Penske PC20-Chevy.
And if nearly equaling Andretti’s pole in 1991 wasn’t impressive enough, Jones’ incredible lap was done on a wet track. That’s how it is. In one of the rare moments that the rain stopped at the 1992 IMSA event, Jones and the rest of the drivers had to navigate all 11 corners without the benefit of the rubber being worked into the track surface and without the all corners were perfectly dry.
The TWR driver was so authoritative in imperfect conditions that he outpaced future GTP champion Juan Manuel Fangio II in the Eagle Mk III by a full 1,269s. With the same dry, rubbery circuit Andretti used in IndyCar qualifying, it’s not hard to imagine the scant 0.381 separating the IndyCar and GTP poles being greatly reduced, if not tilted in favor of the XJR-14. What an incredible time for motorsport.
“The previous car, the Jag XJR-16, was a powerful twin-turbo V6 and it was a heavier car,” Jones told RACER. “The XJR-14 was much lighter at 1700 pounds, and we lost about eight miles per hour down the backstretch at Mid-Ohio with the high-downforce setup on the car. But we gained 15 miles per hour in turn 1. That car, for Mid-Ohio, worked very well.
“Going up the hill at the back and going down the Esses, if you could keep the momentum going and keep the air flowing over the car, it would just get stuck. I mean, that car put out 7,500 pounds of downforce.”
Powered by a Ford-Cosworth Formula 1 3.5-litre V8 engine, the XJR-14 designed by Ross Brawn in 1991 for TWR’s European campaign was shipped to the United States for use by TWR USA in 1992. In its only season in GTP , the Jag stood out, like a single-seat fighter from another galaxy, and had to make do with AAR’s Eagle Mk III GTP when it was getting into its competitive groove.
As at Mid-Ohio, the XJR-14 was a guided missile in qualification. The Eagle Mk III usually won the race, but on those Saturdays where the outer limits of prototype design and creativity could be pushed into the stratosphere as drivers used their sports cars to flirt with IndyCar speeds, something magical was afoot. on display in 1992 when the GTPs blew us away.
“That was the part that was crazy,” Jones said. “With that car, it was mind over matter. You had to fight yourself to stay on it, keep the throttle, because your mind didn’t want to believe that you could go that fast and keep going faster if you stayed on it. The harder you tried and refused to lift, the more it stuck to the ground, but if you did lift it, the front end would lift a bit and just want to understeer and wash out a bit. That pole lap, you put your head in the game and you just put together a really good lap.”
CART would follow IMSA a few months later in September and in the new arrow-shaped Lola T92/00-Ford-Cosworth, Andretti overtook Paul Tracy, setting another outright lap record in the process with a course of 1m8.766s, shaving a total of 0.709 is off his 1991 pole and previous lap record. Using his wet pole speed from May, Jones’s prototype would have started eighth out of 26 entries on the IndyCar grid.
Sadly, with the GTP class already crumbling under the weight of cost and excess as a global recession loomed, IMSA monoliths like Nissan’s factory prototype effort and Jaguar’s XJR-14 program would soon disappear. late 1992. Without a chance to respond to Andretti’s new standard, we couldn’t see what the Jaguar and Jones could generate in 1993.
“I look back at our TWR team, and every time I went to a race weekend, I felt like I had the best that money and technology could put under me,” Jones said. “They gave me the best of everything to do what I had to do, so with that mindset you feel unbeatable.”
In the face of a lack of opposition from the factory and various performance penalties from IMSA, the Eagle Mk IIIs were well off the pace of 1992 when they returned. It left the benchmarks set by Andretti and Jones as a mythical moment in North American racing that would never be replicated. Within a year, a 3.0s gap between IndyCar and IMSA was reduced to 0.3s, and then the funny police stepped in.
For 1994, IMSA eliminated the GTP class and replaced it with the comparatively low-tech WSC formula. Mid-Ohio also fell off the schedule, leaving the brief intersection of outrageous performances and similarities in speed between two very different types of cars an incredible footnote in racing history.