Jimmy Vasser is calling it his “straight off the couch tour.”
The Napa businessman is ending a two-year retirement and crawling back into a Champ Car this weekend in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The Champ Car Series merged with the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series earlier this year, but each circuit will have one separate race this season.
The IndyCar Series will be in Japan this weekend with points from each race contributing to the IndyCar points.
The IndyCar Series will make its third trip to Sonoma’s Infineon Raceway Aug. 22-24.
Vasser hasn’t raced in Champ Car since the Grand Prix two years ago but is anxious to get back behind the wheel, especially for one of his favorite races.
“It’s really an honor to be in that race,” Vasser said. “I have a lot of great memories of that race. I miss driving. I don’t know how many more races I’ll get. (The Champ Car is) a fantastic machine. It’s a much cooler machine than the current IRL Indy Car. I’m happy to do it.”
Vasser co-owns KV Technology Racing with Kevin Kalkhoven, who started the team in 2003. Vasser jumped on board the following year as an owner and driver.
The team is one of four Champ Car teams to head over to the IndyCar Series. Their drivers are Will Power and Oriol Servia, both of whom will also be driving at Long Beach.
Though he may be a tad rusty, Vasser has a mile-long list of credentials.
The Californian raced for 14 seasons plus his final race in 2006. He won the Series championship in 1996, placed second in 1998 and third in 1997.
He’s 11th on the all-time list for Champ Car starts with 232 heading into Sunday’s race. His 211 consecutive starts leads the former series.
Vasser stands among the leaders in most of the career statistical categories, including wins (10), podium finishes (33), poles (nine), laps led (988), and earnings ($12,093,244).
Vasser is sixth all-time on the money list and one of just eight drivers to earn more than $11 million in series competition.
Sunday will mark Vasser’s 16th appearance in Long Beach. He’s totaled 10 Top 10 finishes, five Top 5 spots and three podiums, including a victory in 1996. He earned the pole in 2002 and qualified in the Top 10 eight times.
Vasser admits he’s nervous for this weekend since he literally “downed (his) last beer and got off the couch” two weeks ago and started preparing for the race.
“I’m just nervous, I don’t want to embarrass myself,” Vasser admitted. “I don’t want a poor performance. I don’t want people to think, ‘Aw, he shouldn’t do that.’ I’m excited. I want to do well. Nervous energy is a good thing.”
• Getting in shape at the last minute
Despite some rust, Vasser is “going there to win.”
“It hasn’t been pretty,” Vasser said of his training and conditioning over the past two weeks that’s included a lot of running and swimming. “I’ve been doing two-a-days. I’m trying to cram everything I can into two weeks. I won’t be in top physical shape. I had to have an ambulance follow me on my first run.”
Vasser said the first thing he had to cut out was his usual couple of glasses of wine in the evenings. Vasser owns a vineyard in the Napa Valley and will start his first harvest this summer. The lack of vino on top of the strict diet has made him hungrier for a good showing.
“I’m doing everything I know how to do,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about the last Champ Car race. I have a lot of fond memories at Long Beach.”
Once he’s finished up in southern California, Vasser plans on visiting his family in Napa for a couple weeks before he heads out to Monterey in mid-May.
He’s entered in the Grand Am race on May 17 at Mazda Raceway’s Laguna Seca. He’ll be joined by Cristiano da Matta.
Vasser isn’t planning on piloting an IndyCar this year like fellow quasi-retired driver/team owner Michael Andretti. Andretti, whose family owns Andretti Winery on Big Ranch Road, is rumored to enter May’s Indianapolis 500 as he did the previous two years.
“Not this year; I’m not going to rule out next year,” Vasser said. “Only if my cars are fast. Absolutely, first and foremost, I’m hoping my cars are fast and my team’s on track. If there’s an opportunity, I hope it wouldn’t be too hard. (The) 2009 (race) would be the 100th running and I think it would be pretty cool to be a part of that.
“My future is in the team ownership. We have to be good at that. Quite honestly, I really miss the driving. There’s nothing like being behind the wheel.”
• Owning a team in a new league
Anyone who’s a fan of open-wheel racing was thrilled to see that IRL owner Tony George and Champ Car owner Kalkhoven had finally put their issues aside and bonded their two fledgling series into one.
But things happened fairly suddenly and Champ Car teams were forced to make a quick transition into the new series. Not only are the chassis in the two cars very different, but Champ Car has dominated street and road courses while their open-wheel cousin predominantly raced on ovals.
The past two months have seen the newbies hustling to figure out set-ups on the ovals, but Vasser isn’t regretting the decision to switch gears.
“I don’t think anyone would have missed the chance to do the right thing for the sport,” Vasser said. “I think everyone accepted it on the Champ Car side and put their head down and hasn’t brought them up since.”
“We knew we were going to struggle on the first oval at Homestead. Eventually we’ll get it. It’s the best thing for open-wheel racing for sure. Over time we’ll just have to make our team more competitive. We’re all racing the same thing here. We’re really in the same sandbox, so it will be good.”
Vasser knows he and his drivers have a long season in front of them but they’re getting a bit of help from Vasser’s former team — Target Chip Ganassi.
Vasser drove for Ganassi when he won his 1996 championship and has continued to have a strong relationship with the standout squad.
Last year’s second-place finisher, Scott Dixon, and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon aren’t hanging out in the garage giving pointers, but the team is helping with the oval set-ups.
“I don’t expect to have their full monty whiz bang set-up; they can’t have that floating around,” Vasser said. “We wouldn’t have been able to make it on the track as a transition team without the help we’ve had from Chip Ganassi. They’re continuing to help us. Rather than just barraging us, we have to start with the basics first.”
• Challenges on the oval
Vasser says the hardest part about the transition has been the lack of time to prepare, especially with the shortage of parts the series has seen with the addition of so many new cars.
“It’s a different chassis, getting it on the track and getting it fast, shortage of time, lack of knowledge and experience,” Vasser said. “These cars are very complex and technical and we don’t have any database whatsoever.”
Because of those issues, Vasser isn’t expecting wins from Power or Servia at the oval tracks until next season.
“I think it’s going to take a better part of the year, with ovals,” Vasser admitted on the new teams being truly competitive. “On street courses we’re capable of doing it on any given weekend. The meat of their season is on these ovals. While we all used to race ovals before and we’re good at it, we just have to learn the idiosyncrasies of these chassis.”
PVRT saw a big jump in performance between Week 1 and 2 but Vasser credits almost all of that to the difference in the race track.
Servia and Power qualified 16th and 21st for the season opener at Homestead. Servia finished a respectable 12th while Power didn’t finish after a crash.
Power was the second-fastest at St. Petersburg’s qualifying while Servia was the seventh-fastest. Both nailed Top 10 finishes with Servia landing seventh and his teammate eighth. Fellow IndyCar newbie Graham Rahal won, showing the Champ Car boys should be taken seriously on those right turns.
“The second race was way better; we expected to be a little more competitive,” Vasser said. “We went in after Saturday thinking we had a legitimate chance to win. We were really, really pleased with the effort and the team.
“It was a great day for the Champ Car teams. And the new IndyCar in general. I think some of the IRL cars were surprised and underestimated the level of competition on road courses. I was happily surprised.”
Vasser is expecting a lot from his drivers on Sunday as well as himself.
“I don’t know how competitive I’ll be,” Vasser admitted. “I told my drivers, if I’m not running good, it’s so I don’t ruin their confidence.”