Vasser enjoys Indy's past glory, races toward some of his own

May 20, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmy Vasser spent yesterday afternoon laughing at the fine, well-aged stories being spun by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer.

"I loved listening to him," said Vasser, the fastest rookie in the 33-car starting field for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. "He's got wonderful stories. I don't have any that come even close, but, maybe, when I get to be his age, I'll have a few that will be just as entertaining."

Jimmy Vasser already has one.

Within three days, he went from heartbreak to exhilaration.

On Friday, Vasser lost one of his closest friends, Jovy Marcelo, when he was killed here in a practice accident.

On Saturday, Vasser said, he knew his first weekend qualifying speed of 218.268 mph was not likely to stand up through the weekend.

Sunday, he was on the bubble. Two-time race winner Gordon Johncock came by his garage and told Vasser's team to get ready to requalify, because "I'm going out and I'm going to bump you."

And Johncock did bump him. But, 12 minutes later, Vasser was back in the field, having qualified his Kodalux/Hayhoe-Cole Racing Lola backup car at 222.313 mph.

In a 12-minute span, Vasser had gone from being the slowest rookie to the fastest. It is believed to be an unprecedented achievement on the final day of qualifying.

"It's been a tough month," Vasser said after picking up $2,500 from the American Dairy Association as the Fastest Rookie of the Year. "I raced with Jovy last year. We were close, and I knew him well. I've been through the gamut of emotions, and I really don't know what to think of this place yet, except this is where I've always wanted to be."

It is where Meyer, 87, was, back in the early days of the sport. Meyer reminisced about how he had been a mechanic in 1926 and had come by rides when drivers showed up too hung over to drive or when they got too overheated to continue.

That's how Meyer got his first ride here. He was the mechanic on rookie Wilbur Shaw's car in 1927. When Shaw became exhausted after 300 miles, Meyer replaced him, without ever having driven one practice lap at the Speedway. He brought the car home in sixth place.

Meyer won the Indy 500 for the first time a year later, driving a car of his own for the first time, in his first complete Championship Car race. His other Indianapolis 500 victories came in 1933 and 1936.

"After winning in '28, it was a little easier to get a car," he said.

It hasn't been at all like that for Jimmy Vasser, 26, who seemingly always has had a race car.

"I've been waiting my whole life to get here," Vasser said. "It's a lifelong dream come true. I could be somewhere else [law school]; I've got other options. But, for me, there is nowhere else."

He started when he was 6 years old, driving quarter midgets, small, open-wheel go-carts powered by lawn-mower-type engines.

He has won in Formula Fords, Corvettes and Formula Atlantic cars.

And now he is here, in a car owned by Jim Hayhoe, who is back at Indy after a 22-year absence primarily because of the talent he sees in Vasser.

"I think Jimmy Vasser is special," said Hayhoe, who builds small country clubs. "I think he'll be a real factor in the future."

Louis Meyer, in terms of racing lore, has quite a past. Yesterday, he recalled the first time he drove a race car, in 1926 on a board track in West Allis, Wis. Ten laps into the race, he suddenly found himself sliding and riding backward, waving to all the other cars as they drove by.

"It was my brother's car, and he told me to get out, that I'd never be a race car driver," said Meyer.

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