Australia site of big wins for IndyCar Series drivers, owners

What do Michael Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Bruno Junqueira and Jimmy Vasser have in common? They are among the 16 drivers who have won Indy car races on the Gold Coast of Australia, and they will all be returning to the Land Down Under Oct. 24-26 when the IndyCar Series sanctions its first race in Surfers Paradise.

The group of past winners raves about racing in Australia, where they claimed some of the biggest wins of their careers.

Bruno Junqueira got to kiss the trophy in 2004

“It was one of my best wins because it’s a very special track," said Dale Coyne Racing’s Junqueira, who won in 2004. “It’s very difficult to drive there. In 2002 and 2003, I was so close to winning the races, but because of changing weather and yellows, I didn’t win even though I led the race. In 2004, it was really nice. It was a big fight between me and Sebastien (Bourdais) and Paul Tracy, as well. I put some really fast laps in and pulled away from them. It felt fantastic, especially because I was fighting for the championship with Sebastien, and that kept it close going into the last race."

Junqueira’s victory came one year after Hunter-Reay earned his first career victory during his 2003 rookie campaign.

“It was an amazing day," recalled Hunter-Reay, who won his first IndyCar Series race at Watkins Glen in July. “That race usually has something that throws everyone a big curveball, which is great, because it’s great for the fans. We had a lot of rain, we even had a stoppage for hail. We had a half-race dry at the end. We were the first car to go to slicks (tires), and it paid off for us. To win there was awesome. I was able to hold them off and win."

It was also an amazing day for Franchitti when he won in 1999, winning from the pole to take the season points lead from Juan Pablo Montoya with one race to go.

“I think it was one of my best ever drives there in ’99, the qualifying and race," said Franchitti, who will make his return to the IndyCar Series with Target Chip Ganassi Racing at the event. “Australia is a fantastic race. The way they go about there before the race, the atmosphere – from the very first time I went down there in ’97 I’ve always loved it."

While Junqueira, Hunter-Reay and Franchitti will return to the 2.795-mile street course and attempt to become two-time winners, Andretti and Vasser, now co-owners of Andretti Green Racing and KV Racing Technology, respectively, hope to lead their teams to Victory Lane.

Andretti earned his win at Australia in 1994.

“That may well be my biggest win personally that I had," Andretti recalled. “I was coming off a difficult year in Formula One, and we came back and won our first race back. It was also (team owner) Chip Ganassi’s first win and Reynard’s first win in Indy cars, which kept a streak alive that they had at that point with new cars, so it was a very, very big win for me.

“There were some difficult conditions, it rained a little bit, and I sort of hit the wall at one point. From then, I just hung on. At the end, it started to get dark because it was such a long race and I could barely see. The last two laps I had to count the braking markers to stop, because I couldn’t read the numbers, so it was a little hairy there at the end. At that point, I remember Emerson (Fittipaldi) was catching me, too. It was pretty crazy."

Vasser, who won in 1996, retains a souvenir from his victorious day in Australia.

“It was one of only a few races in my career that I won from pole," Vasser said. “It’s one of those rare races where everything went right. I remember that I hit a cone and it got wedged up behind my helmet in the roll hoop, and I was running around with this cone stuck in my car. They took it out on my last pit stop, and I still have the cone in my office."

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