Vasser not a robot, but he's durable as one


VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Jimmy Vasser wasn't a happy camper when he exited his Champ Car after the final qualifying session for the Molson Indy Vancouver.

"Terrible, terrible, terrible," was his succinct reaction to qualifying 15th on the grid for Sunday's 85-lap contest on the narrow Concorde Pacific Place street circuit.

Fortunately for the 38-year old Californian, Saturday's travails weren't par for the course in his first year as an owner/driver with PKV Racing. In fact, Vasser is coming off a season-best second place finish at Toronto, the previous stop on the Champ Car schedule.

Vasser and Paul Tracy are the only former series champions running in Champ Cars these days, and they are by far the series' most popular and respected drivers. Both men have remained fiercely loyal to Champ Car racing during an era when most of their contemporary rivals switched allegiance to the Indy Racing League.

"The Champ Car is the most fantastic race car that I've driven," said Vasser, whose 1996 CART title was the first of four consecutive for Target/Ganassi Racing. "I haven't driven a Formula 1 car and sometimes I wish I would have. But I love the racing in Champ Car and of the other forms that I have done in the States (which include IRL and NASCAR Busch), this is the best for me. I get more enjoyment out of the machine itself and the race venues are fantastic."

Vasser was one of the most outspoken CART drivers at the time of the open wheel split and his "Who needs milk?" quip after winning the inaugural U.S. 500 was one of the more memorable quotes in racing from the last decade. At a time when many participants in Champ Car and the IRL are taking verbal jabs at the opposite series, Vasser now prefers to focus on the good things that Champ Car racing has achieved as a whole.

"I think a lot of the forward advances in safety have come from Champ Car over the years," Vasser said. "The work that Dr. Trammell and Dr. Olvey did with the organization is something that should be really lauded worldwide because I think Champ Car has spurred a lot of safety regulations in Formula 1 and certainly NASCAR.

"People seem to think that they just kind of appear in NASCAR and give them the credit. The HANS Device was first mandated in Champ Car, as were head restraint features and the fantastic safety team. NASCAR still needs a good safety team in my opinion. Why they don't have one with all the money they have is beyond me. They should have the best one in the world."

Vasser has benefited from Champ Car's emphasis on safety in an unusual way. Sunday will mark his 189th consecutive Champ Car race start, a streak that dates to 1993. Assuming the streak continues through the race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, Vasser will break Al Unser Jr.'s series record of 192 consecutive races from 1984-95.

"It's not an accomplishment of tremendous skill -- it's just longevity," he said. "Maybe I'm humble, but I think it's cool. It's an awful lot of races consecutively but it doesn't feel like that. I still get antsy with anticipation the same way I always did. What it really says is that, knock on wood, I haven't had an injury along the way. Other guys could have had streaks but they have had injuries. And Tracy got disciplined and missed a race to end his streak."

Vasser is a pragmatic realist and the streak, coupled with the fact that former record holder Unser just retired, makes him realize that his driving days are numbered.

"While I still feel I'm on top of my game and still enjoying the driving, it's another thing that makes me realize that in the nearer future my driving career is coming to an end," he said. "Sometimes I'm not really sure how to take that because I haven't really thought about it. I'm sure older guys than me know what I'm talking about -- I'm entering a transition phase from the cockpit. Sometimes it makes me smile and think I've had a lot of great memories and sometimes I feel sad and think I'm not going to be the go-to guy anymore."

Vasser won't go down as one of the sport's most prolific winners (he has 10 career race wins to go with his 1996 CART championship), but he was the key stabilizing factor in Ganassi's successful run in the late '90s. He is also known as the ultimate teammate -- as Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Michel Jourdain will attest.

"It's been such a rollercoaster ride and it will continue to be, because that's motor racing," Vasser said. "It has been interesting to be right in the middle of probably one of the most interesting times in American open-wheel racing of this generation, with the split. A lot of what has gone on in that respect is very disappointing. But I have some of the greatest memories of my life so far in that time period.

"I'm just fortunate to have experienced a lot of emotion, up and down, because that's what life is all about. If you were on an even keel going exactly down the middle, you would be a robot."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.