Thirty years ago, on the road circuit of Mid-Ohio, the fastest American single-seaters and the best sports prototypes found themselves in the most improbable of competitions.
Chronologically, IMSA was the first major series to race at Mid-Ohio in 1991 where Tommy Kendall took pole 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 set 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, photographed at Laguna Seca). The margin between the two rockets was 3.136 seconds.
For the purposes of a modern comparison, Josef Newgarden took pole for last year’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio with a lap of 1m06.674s in his No. 2 Penske Chevy team. Six weeks prior, IMSA was in Mid-Ohio for its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event where Mazda Motorsports’ Harry Tincknell took pole in his #55 RT24-P DPi with a lap of 1:10.027s, about 3.353s slower than Newgarden in his Dallara DW12 Chassis, and almost a game for the 1991 IndyCar-IMSA gap.
It is in the transition to 1992 that tears in the space-time continuum appear.
Once again, IMSA was first on the schedule in Mid-Ohio and on a rainy weekend in May, something extraordinary happened in qualifying. Armed with the revolutionary Jaguar XJR-14, a GTP car that was often hailed as a Formula 1 car disguised as a prototype, TWR USA’s Davy Jones took pole time from Kendall’s 1991 1m12.611s and took it knocks down 2.755s with a 1m9 .856s delivered in his otherworldly Jag.
If erasing the previous GTP pole wasn’t a year-over-year feat, Jones and the XJR-14 came within 0.381 seconds of Andretti’s overall track record set in his Indy car. And while Jones’ lap easily captured pole for the IMSA race, he was also good enough to earn second place on the 1991 CART grid at Mid-Ohio, passing front row starter Rick Mears by 0.150 with the 1m10 .006s he shot. the Penske Racing Penske PC20-Chevy.
And if nearly matching Andretti’s pole in 1991 wasn’t impressive enough, Jones’ incredible lap was achieved on a wet track. It’s true. In one of the few times the rain stopped at the 1992 IMSA event, Jones and the rest of the riders had to navigate all 11 corners with no rubber embedded in the track surface and not all bends are perfectly dry.
The TWR rider was so authoritative in imperfect conditions that he edged future GTP champion Juan Manuel Fangio II in the Eagle Mk III by 1.269 seconds. With the same dry, rubberized circuit to use that Andretti had in IndyCar qualifying, it’s not hard to imagine the scanty 0.381s separating the IndyCar and GTP poles being drastically reduced, or even tilted in favor of the XJR- 14. What an incredible time for motor racing.
“The previous car, the Jag XJR-16, was a powerful twin-turbo V6 and was a heavier car,” Jones told RACER. “The XJR-14 was much lighter at 1700 pounds, and we lost about eight miles per hour on the straight at Mid-Ohio with the car’s high downforce setup. But we gained 15 miles per hour in Turn 1. This car, for Mid-Ohio, ran so well.
“Going up the hill at the back and down through the Esses, if you could just keep the momentum going and keep the airflow over the top of the car, it would get stuck. I mean, this car has produces 7500 pounds of downforce.
Powered by a Ford-Cosworth Formula 1 3.5 liter V8 engine, the XJR-14 designed by Ross Brawn in 1991 for TWR’s European campaign was sent to the United States for TWR USA to use in 1992. In its one and only season in GTP, the Jag stood out – like a single-seat fighter from another galaxy – and had to settle for AAR’s Eagle Mk III GTP as it reached its competitive pace.
As at Mid-Ohio, the XJR-14 was a qualified guided missile. The Eagle Mk III usually took the upper hand in races, but on Saturdays 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 on display in 1992 as the GTPs blew our minds.
“That was the part that was crazy,” Jones said. “With this car, it was mind over matter. You had to fight just to stay in it, stay in the throttle, because your mind didn’t want to believe you could go that fast and keep going. faster if you stayed in. The more you pushed yourself and refused to lift, the more the thing stuck to the ground, but if you lifted, the front end would lift a little and it would just understeer and wash off a bit. pole, you put your head in the game and you just pieced together a really nice lap.
CART would follow IMSA a few months later in September and in the new arrow-shaped Lola T92/00-Ford-Cosworth, Andretti edged out Paul Tracy, setting another all-time lap record in the process with a lap of 1m8.766s, shortening a full 0.709s of his 1991 pole and old lap record. Using its wet pole speed from May, Jones’ prototype would have started eighth among 26 entries on the IndyCar grid.
Unfortunately, while the GTP class was already collapsing under the weight of cost and excess as a global recession emerged, IMSA monoliths like Nissan’s factory prototype effort and Jaguar’s program with the XJR- 14 would disappear by the end of 1992. Without a chance to meet Andretti’s new standard, we couldn’t see what the Jag and Jones could generate in 1993.
“I think back to 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.”
Facing a lack of factory opposition and various performance penalties from IMSA, the Eagle Mk IIIs were well off the pace of 1992 when they returned. He left behind the benchmarks set by Andretti and Jones as a legendary moment in North American racing that will never be repeated. Within a year, a 3.0s gap between IndyCar and IMSA was reduced to 0.3s, and after that the fun police stepped in.
For 1994, IMSA killed off the GTP class and replaced it with the relatively low-tech WSC formula. Mid-Ohio also fell off the schedule, leaving the brief intersection of outrageous performance and speed similarities between two very different types of cars as an incredible footnote in racing history.