Back in 2011, a lot of amazing people helped me to celebrated the life of Jeff Krosnoff, the American IndyCar driver who was killed at the Molson Indy Toronto race on July 14, 1996. That six-part legacy series originally ran on the former SPEED.com site, and with the 20-year anniversary of Jeff’s death upon us, I’ve gone through and done a fresh edit on the Jeff Krosnoff: Stay Hungry series.
“On the way home, I just kept repeating to myself that I was finally in the show, but it didn’t truly hit me until later that night while I was taking out the trash—I was now an Indy car driver. Way cool!”
~Jeff Krosnoff, RACER Magazine, October 1996
Being hidden away in Japan for seven years was about to pay off for Jeff Krosnoff. He’d earned a reputation for being his own man—for following his own path rather than the conventional routes taken by other drivers—and was determined to see the journey brought to some form of conclusion.
Krosnoff became a star driver in Japan, but as he watched his career plateau in the Pacific Rim, it appeared that talent alone wouldn’t be enough to catapult him into Formula 1 or CART IndyCar seat he coveted.
By the latter stages of the 1995 season, however, two elements from Krosnoff’s past would come to the foreground at precisely the right time.
With an old friend—Chip Ganassi Racing’s Mike Hull—calling Krosnoff home from Japan to compete for a job, and Krosnoff’s sports car employer Toyota ready preparing for its CART debut in 1996, his services were suddenly in high demand in America.
Loyalty was a central theme that ran through Krosnoff’s time in Japan, and within Toyota, his name was held with great reverie. Loyalty also played a role in the invitation Krosnoff received from Hull. Ganassi’s managing director could have drafted in bigger names for the team’s IndyCar shootout, but with his influence, the prized opportunity to vie for the empty seat next to Jimmy Vasser was extended to Krosnoff.
Against Alex Zanardi, the former International F3000 standout who had three partial seasons in F1 to his credit, Krosnoff would face a tough adversary. Zanardi was testing for Ganassi thanks to heavy recommendations from Chip’s chassis supplier, Reynard, and by sheer coincidence, the Italian’s career was eerily similar to Krosnoff’s.
A talented prospect who suffered more back luck than was deserved, Zanardi was out of options in F1 at the end of 1994 and was forced to turn to sports cars the following year. Like Krosnoff, returning from the abyss to find a place on motor racing’s main stage was crucial for Zanardi.
Alex had been to the mountain top, lost his place in the series he desired most, and with few options to improve his situation in Europe, a plum opportunity in America with Ganassi looked far more appealing than another season driving for in the BPR Global GT Endurance Series. And for Krosnoff, who never received that invite to F1, racing in CART could deliver the recognition he was never afforded at home.
With the CART season finale on September 10th and Ganassi anxious to find Bryan Herta’s replacement, Hull orchestrated the shootout the following month at the new Homestead circuit near Miami, Florida.
Coming directly from the penultimate round of the 1995 All Japan F3000 championship in Suzuka on October 15th, Krosnoff then raced to Florida, taking a variety of red-eye flights and connections to cross multiple time zones. Zanardi, who was already in Miami, arrived at the track rested and relaxed.
With the first day of the shootout set for October 18th, the recently completed Homestead road course was far from perfect with an excess of dust and sand, not to mention the lack of rubber on its surface.
Achieving an exact by-the-numbers comparison between Krosnoff and Zanardi would be challenging as every run improved the surface conditions, but Hull does recall that in terms of outright pace, there was little to separate both candidates.
“I can’t remember how many days we actually ran there – maybe three days total – and you could’ve thrown a blanket over both of them in terms of lap times,” Hull said. “There was really no difference between the two, all the way through the entire process.”
With lap times offering little in the way of conclusive evidence as to which was better suited for the job, Ganassi says that the manner in which those lap times were set weighed heavily on his final decision.
“We felt that they showed the same amount of talent, and we went to great pains to make sure they all had the same number of tires, and stuff like that,” he noted. “I wanted everything to be equal. If you went strictly off the time, I think they were pretty equal. At the end of the day, the pick was made because, and it’s probably unfair, but Krosnoff took two red eyes get there from Japan, and Zanardi had a day to spend in Miami and Krosnoff just looked like he was breathing heavy when he came in [from] his runs and Zanardi was completely relaxed. And that made the difference, as I recall, but Jeff did a great job.”
Despite rumors Zanardi was already locked into the ride—that the test was just a formality, Hull supported Ganassi’s story on how the final decision was made.
“Chip was very much a part of the process,” he said. “And Chip chose Alex based on some intangible thing that he saw. I know that Jeff raced on Sunday in Japan and then proceeded to get all the way to Florida from Japan, which, think about the time zones you have to cover to get there and be ready to run, but we set it up to where we thought we gave Jeff enough time to be ready to run when he turned up. He certainly wasn’t making any excuses, but it was obvious he didn’t have much rest.
“But for all intents and purposes, I think you could’ve chosen either guy, based on what they did, not only on the racetrack, but what they did with the engineers when they talked about the car and they would trying to get something out of the car. They also spent time with Jimmy Vasser, as a teammate; we had the whole interaction thing going on there. But everything happens for a reason, and you never know the reasons why things happen in life.”
For Ganassi, the 1995 season was good, but far from great. With Herta, who was competing in his first full season of CART and made his fair share of rookie mistakes along the way, it was obvious the boss wanted a driver who was ready to produce immediately.
Krosnoff and Zanardi couldn’t have known it at the time, but the 1996 season at Chip Ganassi Racing would launch the dynasty that has won 11 IndyCar championships and four Indy 500s through 2015. Landing the seat alongside Vasser would, as history shows, launch the chosen driver into the stratosphere.
Comparing their relative state of readiness to perform in front of Ganassi’s test review panel, the Target-sponsored Reynard-Honda Indy car was slower than everything Zanardi raced on the Grand Prix circuit. CART Indy cars were far from slow in that 1995-’96 era, but with 25 F1 starts to his credit, the transition was somewhat easy for Alex.
And with the pressure that comes with being an F1 driver, the general feeling within the Ganassi team was that Zanardi would thrive in the more relaxed Indy car environment. Krosnoff was also accustomed to heavy pressure, but for Ganassi, the thought of grooming another driver on his way up—just like Herta–felt too similar to what he’d just experienced.
“When I tested [Krosnoff] it was like his first time he tested anything serious in the U.S.” Ganassi said. “So it was kind of like, I think Jeff was a great driver and, obviously, had a lot of skill. He obviously, had a lot of skill. I just didn’t think he was as seasoned a driver as Zanardi was at the time. And Jeff was coming out of Japanese F3000, and Zanardi had won in F3000 in Europe, and been in Formula 1 already.
“So it really wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, in terms of experience, but we needed to see how they did at the test, not just on a piece of paper. Jeff was just at a different stage of his career than Zanardi was. He was coming up and Zanardi was already there. He was ready to go and it seemed like it would take Jeff a little bit of time to hit that level of comfort.”
Hull says he would have liked to have seen his friend chosen for the job, but after weighing all of their findings, Ganassi’s reasons for selecting Zanardi were sound.
“Jeff didn’t have the big horsepower experience that Alex did, although he got on top of it pretty quickly,” he said. “The difference was that Alex was at ease driving an 800 hp Indy car and Jeff was making a pretty big step there. But he didn’t seem to lack in being able to pedal the thing around a racetrack, and he certainly was not at odds on the oval; whereas, Alex wasn’t the best on the oval; it took him a little bit of time to get going. So it was kind of a balancing act between the two guys. But I do understand what Chip’s talking about and I understand the reasons why he went with Alex.”
Krosnoff obviously would have liked to receive the nod from Ganassi; Zanardi would go on to place third in the 1996 CART Indy Car championship before earning consecutive titles in 1997 and 1998. But there was one saving grace: Ganassi wasn’t the only team that had expressed an interest in Jeff’s talents.
Zanardi and Krosnoff were also up for a seat at the sophomore Arciero-Wells CART program run by Cal Wells, the highly successful off road team owner who looked after Toyota’s Baja and stadium truck racing programs.
As crazy as it sounds, and further proving that Krosnoff was ahead of his time by forging deep ties with auto manufacturers, it was Jeff’s time spent as a factory driver for Nissan in the SCCA Coors Racetruck series that caught the attention of Wells.
“Yeah, and shockingly it’s true,” Wells said. “He was driving the little trucks for Nissan at the time and the program manager Frank Honsowetz was a guy I knew pretty well. We were beating on each other really hard in the [Mickey Thompson Off Road] stadium stuff where I had Ivan Stewart and Steve Millen at the time. That’s where I got to know Frank. And Frank said, ‘You know, you really need to keep an eye on this guy Jeff Krosnoff, he’s really something special.’”
Wells and team co-owner Frank Arciero spent 1995 running the wealthy but hapless Hiro Matsushita, and with Wells ready to take Toyota into the CART series in 1996 (along with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers), he was on the lookout for a driver and booked a test of his own to evaluate driving talent.
Krosnoff, fresh off the Ganassi test that did wonders for his reputation, was back at Homestead a week later for the October 26-29 Arciero-Wells shootout.
“We looked at the resumes of people that looked like they were ready to go with us, but maybe not the same guys that were always floating around,” Wells explained. “And Toyota was very supportive of trying something different. So that’s why we looked at Alessandro Zanardi and we looked at Krosnoff, as well as the Mike Groffs of the world and other folks that had run competitively but weren’t necessarily at the top of their game right then.”
With Zanardi having signed a contract with Ganassi just prior to the Arciero-Wells shootout, the test came down to Krosnoff and Groff—old friends from southern California. Groff had been in CART for a number of years, but was looking for a return ticket to the series after being released from Bobby Rahal’s team at the end of 1994.
Known for his oval racing prowess, Groff excelled on Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval during the test, but Krosnoff was more than a second faster on its 2.21-mile road course. With 10 of CART’s 16 races on road and street courses, Krosnoff’s decisive advantage over Groff on the twisty bits made Wells’ choice somewhat academic.
As Wells told On Track magazine in the November 30, 1995 edition, Krosnoff’s ties to Toyota helped to seal his deal.
“One of Jeff’s positives is that he already has a relationship with Toyota,” he said. “He actually has driven for Toyota on a number of different levels. He’s highly regarded by the Toyota Motor Corp’s motorsports division and has a great deal of cross-cultural experience, and that makes him a natural for us.”
Wells also knew Toyota’s CART engine program would take time to mature, making Krosnoff the perfect choice.
“We just thought Jeff would be a fresh start,” Wells added. “And we also knew that it was going to be a while before things got good. Toyota was learning and the CART engines back then were very sophisticated. It required a lot of understanding and know-how to be competitive and Toyota did not want to do a ‘buy a valve cover’ kind of program like others had done; they wanted to do it ground up. And so we knew that was going mean we were in for the long haul. So it would take somebody with patience to help get the engine to where Toyota needed and Jeff appeared to be the right guy.”
With expectations kept rather low, Krosnoff knew he was heading into his rookie season with a lot of engine-related maladies on the horizon, but after more than a decade of fighting his way to reach the top of a major racing series, he stepped forward and signed with Arciero-Wells.
“This is a chance of a lifetime for me,” he said in the Nov. 1995 issue of On Track. “I’m confident that Arciero-Wells Racing will be a great team to drive for.”
Looking back, the Ganassi camp knew Wells had made the right choice after getting a feel for Krosnoff’s capabilities alongside Zanardi.
“I was very, very happy that we were able to give him an opportunity to test because I really think that he did possess all the things that it took to be on the top level of motor racing,” Hull said. “In and out of the racecar, with the guys that work on the car, with the engineers, with the owner, with the teammate, it was all there. And he had enormous ability to drive a racecar. And someone like that with the whole package is hard to find. He had that thing when you look in a guy’s eye, you can see this is the guy you want driving your car. And I always saw that in him. I always thought that he was the real deal. Cal Wells had a heck of a driver on his hands.”
The 16-round 1996 CART championship kicked off at Homestead where a rude awakening was waiting Toyota and its two teams, AAR and Arciero-Wells.
Krosnoff qualified his Reynard-Toyota 25th in the 27-car field after encountering turbo boost problems and had company from AAR’s Juan Manuel Fangio II who started 26th in his Toyota-powered Eagle. Lacking full power, Jeff’s IndyCar oval debut produced a qualifying average of 184.5 mph which was light years adrift from Paul Tracy’s 198.5 mph pole in a Penske-Mercedes. Fangio was more than 20 mph off PT at 177.4 in the unloved AAR chassis…there was no hiding how much distance Toyota would need to cover in the months ahead.
It was hardly a memorable introduction to IndyCar racing, but as Krosnoff told Jeremy Shaw in the April 1996 issue of Indy Car Racing Magazine, he wanted nothing more than to take the fight to the rest of the field from the outset.
“It’s frustrating,” he said after qualifying. “Because every other time the car has run it has been flawless. No problems. But we’re getting there. In racing, you’re either improving or you’re winning, and we’re improving.”
Krosnoff’s Indy car debut lasted 102 laps at the 133-lap Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami after an engine misfire ended his day. A lack of fuel pressure halted Fangio’s efforts on the Lap 108.
Jeff moved up to 17th prior to the problems with his 2.65-liter turbo Toyota RV8A engine. Although the No. 25 Arciero-Wells Reynard-Toyota wasn’t a factor at the front of the pack in Homestead, Krosnoff produced the first of many spirited drives—all with minimal fanfare–in uncompetitive machinery.
“It’s a shame,” Krosnoff told Shaw after the race. “I thought for sure that we were going to finish the race. That was our goal. The engine was running great, but then, as I was getting up to speed after that last yellow (for contact between Andre Ribeiro and Robby Gordon), it started to misfire. The test driver in me is happy. It’s like getting a new toy. You get to pick it apart and see the progress you are making. The race car driver in me is frustrated. When I get out of the car and look at the timing screen I want to be competitive and at the top of the list.”
Leaving Florida for Brazil, site of Round 2 for the Rio 400, Krosnoff experienced a number of engine failures throughout the weekend. Poor reliability was to be expected, but coupled with a dire lack top-end power, Toyota’s RV8A was either blowing up or dragging an anchor on the ovals.
Even with an improvement in his qualifying position—up to 22nd from 27 cars–Krosnoff’s qualifying time (rather than qualifying speed) was a full 2.1 seconds adrift from pole. Although it wasn’t a surprise, the stopwatch provided a painfully clear picture of where Toyota stood among the engines from Honda, Mercedes, and Ford.
Jeff’s race only lasted until Lap 37 in Rio before the engine expired. More engine failures kept Krosnoff from finding speed in practice for Round 3 at Surfers Paradise, where he qualified 24th of the 25 cars that made the trek to Australia. After finishing 22nd and 26th in his first two races, Krosnoff came home 18th Down Under. For once, the lack of a stronger finish was his fault; a top-12 result was on offer until he locked his brakes and slid into the tire barriers on Lap 38.
Round 4 at Long Beach—Krosnoff’s home race—was filled with more engine problems, but the gap in qualifying was reduced slightly as the Reynard-Toyota came within 1.7 seconds of Gil de Ferran’s pole. The best part of the weekend for Krosnoff would be in qualifying where he captured 23rd in the 28-car field.
Engine failure on Lap 23 meant he was sidelined before the one-quarter mark of the 105-lap race, but Krosnoff earned high praise for extracting the maximum from the car in the corners—the only place the Reynard-Toyota package wasn’t at a massive disadvantage.
Round 5 at the Nazareth oval marked Krosnoff’s first finish of the year, despite more engine detonations in practice limiting his overall progress. With its lack of long straights, Krosnoff was able to qualify 23rd among the 26 starters, just 1.5 seconds off of Paul Tracy’s pole-winning lap, but on average speed, his Toyota was only able to muster a lap of 176.6 mph to the 190.7 set by Tracy’s Mercedes.
Five rounds in, progress was evident, but Toyota was inching forward instead of making leaps and bounds.
An uncomplicated run to 18th–albeit 14 laps behind eventual winner Michael Andretti in the 200-lap race—delivered the first hint of optimism about engine reliability. And as Krosnoff’s friend Paul Pfanner remembers, the Nazareth race also helped the rookie driver to develop a new skill behind the wheel.
“It was flattering to Jeff that Cal Wells gave him real encouragement to just try to flog the car like a bat out of hell,” he said. “Jeff once jokingly told me at Nazareth after a practice session that he had learned to drive the car as fast as he possibly could without ever looking ahead because it was so slow. He was driving every lap looking at his rear view mirrors…trying to not get run over because it was so far down on power. The ratio of looking ahead and looking back was probably 35 ahead, 65 rear…”
Dressed in a muted, sponsor-free livery through the first five races, the No. 25 turned up for the inaugural U.S. 500—CART’s answer to the Indy 500 during the split with the Indy Racing League—with corporate backing from telecommunications giant MCI on the sidepods.
The brilliant blue MCI livery was still a few races away, but more importantly, the signing of new long-term sponsor would help subsidize the team’s growth for years to come.
Positive news for the future did not change the team’s immediate fortunes on the Michigan Superspeedway as Krosnoff experienced the now-expected rash of engine failures before qualifying 24th in the 26-car field with a lap of 217.3 mph.
Krosnoff would finish 18th at Round 6 in Michigan after an engine failure on Lap 143, and finish 18th again one week later at Round 7 on the Milwaukee oval. Set against the dire lack of speed in the early rounds, the Reynard-Toyota was beginning to look somewhat competitive for the first time in 1996.
Krosnoff’s best qualifying run of the year netted 22nd on Milwaukee’s 28-car grid, and despite being just over 10 mph off of Tracy’s pole speed, he set the 17th-fastest race lap and finished nine laps behind Michael Andretti in the 200-lap contest.
With seven races down, five DNFs due to engine failure, and progress with the Toyota powerplant slowly creeping forward, coming home less than 10 laps down to the winning car at Milwaukee could have been received as a poor result. But according to Wells, something special was starting to form inside the Arciero-Wells program.
“The team was jelling and really going places, but you had to be on the inside to see it,” he said. “We had a fabulous technical director in Gordon Coppuck. When Jeff found out that Gordon was our technical director he was over the moon. That was fantastic for him because he was able to work with someone who had won world championships and had fabulous drivers and won the Indy 500.
“Jeff would listen, and it worked out very, very well for us because we were able maximize Jeff’s talent, maximize what the Reynard chassis had, maximize what the Toyota engine as much as possible. The Toyota engine, as any new manufacturer would be, didn’t quite produce the power as others and it also was fragile.
“The one that Jeff drove was the phase three motor. It took phase five before we won a pole (in 1999), phase six before we won a race (in 2000) if that helps you to understand where we were at in ‘96. But Jeff knocked it out of the park right away, from the first race.
“After all those years in Japan, Jeff’s feedback was phenomenal. Phenomenal. He just really did a fantastic job on everything he delivered. He understood the car, he could dissect the car, and he understood it mechanically. He had the feel, an excellent feel, so if there was an issue with something he could point you in the right direction. So we were able to impress a few people, including ourselves that first half of the season, up through July.”
As the championship moved to Belle Isle in Detroit for Round 8, momentum was beginning to build for Krosnoff as he qualified 21st and finished 15th–their best result to date. Round 9 at Portland gave more of the same as he finished once again, placing 17th after starting 23rd.
Krosnoff would be credited with 16th the following weekend at Cleveland, although an electrical failure ground the car to a halt with three laps to go. Missing out on completing a string of four consecutive finishes was unfortunate, but the team was now able to take the fight to some of the veterans on the grid.
At the U.S. 500, Krosnoff waged a fierce battle with Penske’s Tracy and ex-F1 man Stefan Johansson. At Detroit, Krosnoff posted a faster race lap than Moore, Herta, Parker Johnstone and Roberto Moreno, among others.
These were nothing more than small, moral victories, yet served as indicators that the young team with the unproven engine and unheralded driver were headed in the right direction. Faith and persistence was finally being rewarded.
Arciero-Wells, Toyota and Jeff Krosnoff were rarely seen on television or in print during the first 10 rounds of the 1996 championship. They’d yet to score a point and were outside the top 25 in the standings, but with an uprated engine on the way and every reason to believe another run inside the top 15 was possible, hopes were high within the Arciero-Wells camp as the series moved from Cleveland to Toronto for Round 11.
The lives of many people would be changed forever in a matter of days.
Coming up in Part 4: Toronto.