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.
“We at All American Racers were increasingly impressed with the outstanding abilities and character of this fine young man. The stark reality that Jeff is gone reveals once again the facts that such things are part of the business despite our attempts to deny it. The veil erected by our passions and our faith in improved technology and track safety is blown away in moments like this. For better or for worse, incidents like this contribute to the fascination, the drama and the mystery of auto racing, and should increase our appreciation for the people who are willing to lay it on the line every Sunday. Jeff did. We admired him for it. And we will miss him.
Owing to the graphic video of the crash that killed Jeff Krosnoff and Gary Avrin, it was only a matter of hours before news of the accident—and footage of what took place—reached the mainstream media. The members of Krosnoff’s tight-knit network, near and far, were understandably shocked to learn of his death.
Eddie Irvine, one of Krosnoff’s friends from their time racing in Japan, was driving for the Ferrari Formula 1 team during the Toronto race and received the news from Jeff’s friend and veteran F1 correspondent Adam Cooper.
“I remember exactly where I was,” Irvine said. “I was at Silverstone and Adam came over to me and said, ‘Jeff’s been hurt.’ And when he said that, I just knew, you know? I just went back behind the Ferrari truck…”
Long before his nine 24 Hours of Le Mans wins, Tom Kristensen, another one of Jeff’s friends from Japan, followed Krosnoff’s path to North America where he spent the summer of 1996 searching for IndyCar opportunities.
“I also remember that day because I was there–I was there with my girlfriend,” the Dane said. “We traveled to Toronto to meet some potential teams where I had set up some appointments. And it was, of course, a sad day to have your girlfriend there and obviously to watch a great friend leave us.”
Krosnoff became a major part of Tommy Kendall’s life from the moment the future four-time Trans-Am his childhood friend. As an almost inseparable pair, it made Jeff’s loss incredibly hard to accept.
“I was in Idaho, Sun Valley, visiting my mom on vacation, which was kind of rare for me, but I was on vacation,” Kendall said. “I remember I got online that morning, I think it was good old CompuServe, and checked the qualifying. Saw that he had qualified the best ever for a Toyota, but still a ways down. We were driving all day over to Fish Lake, Montana. So it’s an all-day drive and I was dying to know what was going on. Out of cell range and all that stuff, so I didn’t know a thing. So I got to our hotel and I turned on the TV and there was, I was trying to get race results…it’s still really weird because the only thing I can think of is the brain’s sort of protecting me, but I turned on the TV and there was a story about – it made it sound like it was a local race. It said: ‘Track worker and driver killed.’ And for some reason as I was seeing the story, I wasn’t paying that close attention.
“And then they ran the video, and I’m like, whoa, whoa, wait, that’s Toronto. And then when the car came to rest and they showed it just for a second, I thought it was Jeff’s car. And I’m guessing they were talking and saying what happened and who the person was but I didn’t hear any of it. And only at the very end of the footage did I hear them say that it’s Toronto and that it’s Jeff. I’m sure they said ‘Jeff Krosnoff’ but my brain just shut down. So I got on the phone and tried to call people and couldn’t reach anyone, and finally got a hold of Mike Hollander from [Racing Information Service] and he told me. He said, ‘We lost Jeff.’
“So that’s how I found out. My mom was there and she knew Jeff from the time he was a little kid. [He] was like a first son to her, so it was a real mess. You can’t believe it. I just remember I went outside and laid down underneath the stars in Montana and just couldn’t process it.”
As the news of Krosnoff and Avrin continued to spread, Jeff’s Arciero-Wells team, the drivers involved in and around the accident scene, and members of the CART series were being subjected to a rather unnerving investigation by the authorities in Toronto.
“This is a different type of situation and none of us had been through it before, and frankly, since; I haven’t heard of anything like this since, where the city comes in and takes control,” said Adam Saal, who looked after CART’s communications department in 1996.
“We all had procedures in place but it quickly emerged that this is going to be under the charge of the Toronto coroner, Dr. Huxter. I remember that clearly because he had on a sun hat, like a Safari type of hat to keep the sun off him, he was wearing red shorts, and I think he had a shirt that said ‘City of Toronto’ or whatever his affiliation was. He was there and it quickly became clear that they fully intended to treat this as a matter, as they would in any other incident that happened on their city streets, and we complied. There was no sense in trying to go against that.”
Saal also had a firsthand look at the city’s interactions with numerous members of the CART paddock after the crash.
“Their procedures called for, and again, it’s part of the criminal investigation department, so their procedures called for detailed interviews with everyone involved,” he explained. “And that was one of the things we helped set up in the media center. You would call it the Toronto pressroom that was up in the meeting rooms of the actual building there, we cleared out a couple of rooms where they could set up their operation. And I even overheard a couple of the questions they were asking; I think it was Stefan Johansson at the time.
“Very procedural questions like, ‘When did you arrive in town? Why did you take that flight? Why were you coming from Sweden? Did you know this person; did you know that person?’ Kind of invasive stuff, if you think of it from a guy like Johansson who was directly involved in the accident. These were the questions given to a suspect, almost. I remember [CART VP of Competition] Kirk Russell did a very good job reminding everybody, including us in the PR department, that, look, we’re in their jurisdiction and these are people who are here to do a job and we’re here to do our job and let’s work with them. And we did.”
Krosnoff’s team owner Cal Wells had dealt with a number of deaths during his company’s long tenure in off-road racing, and despite the gravity of what happened to Jeff in Toronto, he had to focus everyone’s attention on the priorities at hand.
“I can tell you that at the time, it was incredibly stressful, it was very straining in my particular position,” Wells said. “We had an accident plan for just about everything and one thing was a strategy for a tragedy, never thinking we’d have to invoke it. The investigation involved Gary Avrin as well as Jeff. It involved the safety procedures instituted before, it involved the track layout, it involved the promoter—Molstar–at the time, it involved the team…you name it. It got ugly real quick.
“So we’re left working through how do we get Jeff out of Canada? It’s a foreign country. His mom and dad were there, how do we deal with that? His wife was there, how do we deal with that? How do we deal with all of it? How do we protect the company? How do we protect the people in the company? How do we protect the sponsors? How do we deal with all of it? We were pretty well prepared, but it wasn’t easy and we didn’t have all the answers.”
Wells relied upon a number of people to look after the situation, and racing veteran Mark Johnson was tasked with working through all of the details on behalf of the team in Canada.
“Mark Johnson, who had been Kawasaki’s global motorsports manager for years, headed up our operations and he had a tremendous amount of experience with motorcycle guys getting hurt and killed when we raced in Baja together,” he said. “He had experience, particularly off of American soil, and so collectively it was a very, very, tough task for anyone, but he was great in that role.”
Wells also credited the entire team for helping to deal with Krosnoff’s death.
“Heather Handley, she’s the mother of Eddie Cheever, and she was our director of corporate communications, and she was incredible,” he said. “Everybody that day, that moment, the entire process, they stepped up; and so for me, the emotions get jammed into a box and put up on the shelf. What I can say is that there are a lot of people that deal with tragedy and it’s really their truly defining moments, and it was the first and, as of yet, still only major league drama like that I’ve experienced.
“I was incredibly close with Jeff; I only knew him 10 months, but I really enjoyed him. I was very close with him but I just couldn’t…I had to set that all aside and say, okay, I’ve got to frame this so that I can function in a way that will actually get something done. And it was hard because there were a couple of times that everybody broke down.
“So as the patriarch of the company, as the owner, I was able to hand off sections that had to get done. And it’s complex. When you’re trying to get a body out of another country, when the car’s impounded for seven years, there’s a lot of things that you just don’t think about. Now, I would now, but not then on all those levels. So I was very, very lucky.”
As the Toronto inquest continued, Arciero-Wells and the CART series faced the awkward and inevitable step of moving on. CART’s next race, Round 12 on the Michigan International Speedway oval, was scheduled just two weeks after Toronto.
With more important happenings in Canada, skipping Michigan was the only option as the team had to arrange farewells for Krosnoff, and find a new driver for the No. 25 Reynard-Toyota.
“Well, I’ll tell you, you don’t have a lot of time to think about it,” Wells said. “I had to get a special dispensation about the next race because it was just going to be too hard to put everybody through it. So I had to write a letter and get a special dispensation [from CART] so we wouldn’t lose our points and lose our franchise standing, and so on. But that was it and I had to get going.”
Prior to the public memorial, Wells and his team said goodbye to Krosnoff in their own way.
“We had our own memorial service, because at the time, we were pretty big back then,” he continued. “We had about 300 staff members, we were in multiple series, with Atlantic and IndyCar and off-road, a lot of stuff going on. We called everybody together, this is before the big memorial, gathered everybody up, and they just told stories.
“It was just fantastic. And Jeff’s wife Tracy came. And I believe we brought two others from his family. And then we had a wonderful toast with milk, it was classy. That’s where we really heard the stories about Jeff. It sounds silly to say it was a cool deal, but it was a cool deal.”
After the team’s personal goodbye, an even bigger gathering of loved ones descended on Jeff’s Californian hometown of La Canada-Flintridge. Held July 22 at Descanso Gardens, approximately 1500 friends, family and members of the CART community flew in from around the world to celebrate Krosnoff’s life and bid a final farewell.
“Touchingly beautiful,” Saal said. “The setting was unbelievable. It was a gorgeous park that Jeff played in when he was a kid and there’s the whole setting that was absolutely beautiful.”
RACER Magazine founder Paul Pfanner, who shared an exceptionally close bond with Jeff, shared some of what took place that day.
“It seemed to me like there was one hell of a lot of people there,” he said. “Very overwhelming. A great number of team owners and drivers and people from sanctioning bodies to pay tribute to Jeff. It was somewhat ironic that there were the people Jeff was trying to get the attention of for so long, and I know if Jeff was here, he’d laugh and say, ‘Great, so this is the way I get you all to notice me?…’
“It was quite remarkable to see the service, and Tommy Kendall did a phenomenal job speaking and sharing Jeff’s personality with everyone there. I know I spoke, too, but I don’t remember it because it was a trance-like experience for me. It was a bit of a blur, but overall, it was a moment where you realized how many people he touched. You realized you weren’t the only one he got to.”
Shav Glick, the legendary auto racing reporter for the Los Angeles Times, attended Krosnoff’s service and, thankfully, captured some of Pfanner’s speech for the July 25, 1996 edition of the newspaper.
“Words alone fail to communicate the joy Jeff brought to me and those who were fortune enough to have shared his beautiful life,” Pfanner said. “Words also fail to resonate the pain that his passing brings to those who loved him. That I truly believe Jeff Krosnoff was the very best racing driver I have ever known is of less consequence now. What matters more today is that I truly believe he lives on in my heart . . . and hopefully yours.”
Glick also documented some of Kendall’s aforementioned speech.
“I have known Jeff for over 20 years, and when I think of him, the two things that come to mind are his indomitable will and his irrepressible spirit,” said Kendall. “When we were very young, dreaming of becoming race car drivers, Jeff was a role model for me. I find it incomprehensible that in a moment or two he won’t come out from behind one of these trees and flash that crooked grin of his.”
According to Kendall and Saal, emotions, as one might expect, also ran high at the memorial.
“That was certainly the overwhelming feeling I had at his service for the people – Eddie Irvine couldn’t come (‘Ferrari wouldn’t release me from a test,’ said a perturbed Irvine), but his parents came and a lot of people came from Europe,” Kendall recalled. “That seemed to be the overwhelming thing is all these people who met him and saw the same thing, the potential and where his career was going, and it was hard to accept what had taken place.”
“Jeff had an Italian best friend, a teammate from Japan named Mauro Martini,” Saal remembered. “He kind of showed us how to do it. You know what I mean? From the moment he walked in with Tracy Krosnoff on one arm, just mourning the way you should, the way expressive Italian people do it. You could tell he was hurting but at the same time he wasn’t going to bottle it up and I think that helped some other people realize, look, now is your time to let it all out.
“[Krosnoff’s friend and former CART driver] Mark Smith was walking along, he was just sobbing his eyes out, and I don’t see how that could be bad. It was certainly sad, but it was touching. It was definitely touching.”
CART held a memorial at the Michigan race for Krosnoff and Avrin, which was also attended by Barbara Johnston, the corner worker who was injured but survived the Toronto crash.
“I was standing close to her at the memorial service we did at Michigan, and she wanted to stay out of the public eye, which we respected” Saal said. “We deliberately had the memorial at Michigan because a lot of the corner marshals that worked the Toronto race were from that Detroit [SCCA] region, and they were able to easily get over there and be part of the memorial service, which was nice. And that was as much to remember Jeff as it was for Gary.
“We should remember the people that literally put their lives on the line; I’m speaking of Gary Avrin as much as anybody else involved that day, and we love them for what they did. We shouldn’t forget.”
In a letter to Indy Car Racing magazine published in the October 1996 edition, Avrin’s parents displayed a level of warmth, understanding and appreciation that seemed otherworldly—especially so soon after their loss.
“We have been greatly strengthened by the outpouring of love, concern and support that all of Gary’s ‘extended family’ in the racing community have extended to us,” they said. “We have certainly come to understand what he meant when he so frequently spoke of the closeness and camaraderie that existed there. It is a great comfort to us to know that he died doing something he loved.
“We had a beautiful celebration of his life at the Calgary Raceway on July 20th. There were representatives of many racing groups present. Some of his ashes were scattered at ‘his corner.’ Marc, Gary’s father, read the following comments at his celebration:
‘One of the things Gary loved about racing beside the excitement, was the camaraderie—the feeling of extended family—because they were that! I feel that in this aspect, all of them, including Gary were expressing one of the finest human characteristics—and I feel they all deserve to be honored. For this, I am sure that Gary would want us to express these feelings because this is how he felt about them, that they were good people. Racing expresses various other aspects of humanness. It is highly competitive, it generates a lot of technological advancement and it deservedly has become a very important spectator sport.
‘So, even though I’m primarily here to pay my respects to my son, I also feel it is necessary that all the people who contribute to racing , the sponsors, the drivers, the mechanics, the volunteers in particular, are owed something and it should be acknowledged. It is my hope that these people will continue to make it a safer and better sport and one that can help to diffuse the spirit of extended family that is so prevalent amongst the volunteers.’
“We had a second, more private celebration here a week ago and this time the rest of his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean at an extremely scenic and beautiful spot. We felt Gary was with us, watching and happy with how beautiful it all was. ~ Ruth and Marc Avrin.”
Before the memorials took place, Wells had started the surreal process of hiring a new driver and worked from a short list of candidates.
“The weekend after Toronto was open so I had to at least get somebody in here to drive,” he said. “We tried Tom Kristensen and couldn’t come to terms with him. Understand this was a while ago, so it’s was before Tom won Le Mans. It was very different.”
Well’s technical director, Gordon Coppuck, had another driver in mind—someone who, like Krosnoff, had an abundance of character and talent.
“I was in Italy, driving around,” Max Papis said. “Gordon called me up and said, ‘We would like to interview you for this job.’ It didn’t even come to my mind or anything what it was about. And I actually didn’t even realize what the phone call from Gordon was until I put one and one together.”
Once Papis realized the purpose for Coppuck’s call, the Italian felt rather conflicted.
“First of all, I knew Jeff,” he said. “At the end of 1995 I actually went to Japan to test [in] Formula 3000, and I actually ended up testing for the 5Zigen team, and the 5Zigen team was the team that Jeff actually used to race for when he was in Japan. It was kind of a weird circumstance where I almost took over what was Jeff’s ride.
“And after that I went back home and I had the phone call to come over and drive a sports car for Ferrari. I never thought about IndyCar at all until the day Mr. Coppuck called.”
Ask any team owner who has lost a driver about the kinds of calls that come in from potential replacements, and you’ll likely hear some rather unsettling tales. For a sensitive person like Papis, the last thing he wanted was to be perceived as was an ambulance-chaser. Before agreeing to join Arciero-Wells, he was concerned about earning the drive the right way.
“I didn’t feel very comfortable at all about the opportunity of – even just going to talk to them or even sit in the car or something like that, because I knew who Jeff was…,” he said. “I really needed it very clear. And when I went over there my number one concern was always to make it clear: The day of Jeff’s death, the weeks after, whatever, the team received a lot of phone calls from people that wanted to actually drive Jeff’s car, and I could never do this.
“I said, ‘I want to be sure we tell the right story. That it’s not me coming after you, coming after this opportunity or anything; but it’s you guys calling me about having the honor of continuing the legacy of Jeff.’ And that was the thing I felt most proud of, in a way. The day when I had the opportunity to go and continue Jeff’s legacy, I first spoke with his wife and she was very gentle. She was a lovely person.”
With Coppuck leading the charge, Wells and team interviewed Papis at Michigan and hired him to start at Round 13 in Mid-Ohio on August 11.
“Max was someone that had been very spectacular in sports cars here and been successful in Formula 3, did a little bit of Formula 1 with Jackie Oliver, so he just looked like a good guy to try,” Wells said. “I did get a lot of people that called. It’s tough for the people that want the job and it’s tough for the people that have to listen to it, but it is part of the sport. Max interviewed well so we took a flyer and just said, ‘all right, let’s see how he does.’ We had a good driver, and he did a good job of filling in. It was a very stressful situation for him.”
Papis impressed at Mid-Ohio with almost zero testing, and ran well until his Toyota engine let go on Lap 40 of the 83-lap event.
Round 14 at Road America proved to be the highlight of the year for the team. After starting 23rd, Papis crossed the finish line with an improbable ninth-place finish, the best finish for the team in 1996, and one spot behind Juan Manuel Fangio II in the Toyota-powered Eagle chassis.
The team would miss the penultimate round at Vancouver due to a pre-existing sports car drive Papis had in place, but would return for the finale at Laguna Seca where Alex Zanardi would make “The Pass” on Bryan Herta to take the win.
The high from Road America would evaporate quickly for Papis and the Arciero-Wells team at Laguna. Despite qualifying 17th, their season ended as it began when motor problems forced the No. 25 Reynard-Toyota to retired just prior the hallway point.
Before the end of 1996, Wells would sign Papis to a two-year extension. The fiery crowd favorite continued to keep Krosnoff’s memory alive as he practiced the same attacking style of driving that endeared the Californian to the team.
“I kind of feel that it’s not by chance that I drove for him–maybe it was by chance the team choose me–but it’s not by chance that someone like me continued the legacy of someone like Jeff,” Papis said. “Because I really feel like nothing has been handed to me, like nothing was handed to Jeff, but I never give up like Jeff never gave up. He kept pushing every day.”
In addition to keeping Krosnoff’s memory alive by his performances behind the wheel of Jeff’s Indy car, Papis revealed he also pays tribute to his friend each year on the series’ return to Toronto.
“I never wanted to share this because it is pretty private,” he said. “But every time I went to Toronto to race, I always, always made sure that the day I arrive, I always [go] and give a kiss to the tree he hit and I say a prayer for Jeff. Every time. Every, every, every time.
“I think there are certain things that happen for a reason. I really believe so, and I believe I was meant to drive for Jeff. I was sincerely pleased to see that his wife really knew what I meant when I told her that I was really proud of being able to carry his dream. Jeff always gave me a lot of motivation. He touched my heart and his presence is always with me.”
Coming up in the Part 6 finale: Reflections.