DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – One of America’s most diverse road racers is hanging up his helmet after this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Scott Pruett took the green flag for today’s 24-hour sports car race from third place in the GT Daytona class in the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3. When the checkered flag waves Sunday, it will close a five-decade career for Pruett that saw him achieve success in Trans Am, IMSA GTO, Grand-Am, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, NASCAR and Indy car.
Pruett raced Indy cars from 1988-99 for teams including Dick Simon, Truesports, Patrick Racing and Arciero-Wells. He considers his time with Pat Patrick his fondest years. The team spent all of 1994 developing tires for Firestone’s return to Indy car racing without competing in a race. They were front-runners from 1995-98, winning at Michigan International Speedway in ’95 and at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 1997.
Pruett recalled “leading the championship in 1995 going into Indianapolis” as a highlight. “Unfortunately,” he added, “we never came away with a championship. We had way too many engine failures.”
As with most drivers, Pruett still recalls the big one that got away – the 1995 Indianapolis 500. Running second, Pruett was biding his time late, waiting for the right time to pass Scott Goodyear, who had passed Pruett for first place on a Lap 176 restart.
“In the drivers meeting (before the race), they were very clear you cannot pass the pace car (during a caution period) coming off Turn 4,” Pruett said. “And so I got a good start and came around Turn 4 and the pace car was there. I let off, Scott Goodyear had a run, so he got by me.”
Pruett felt he had a better-handling car, so was looking for the chance to retake the lead when disaster struck. He ran through oil dropped from Raul Boesel’s car on Lap 184 and slid into the wall.
“I thought, ‘We’re going to catch some traffic, I’m going to catch back up to (Goodyear) and go by,’” Pruett said. “Well, we never got a chance to play that one out because I got into Raul’s oil and I just bumped the wall, but it broke the ring and then the tire went down and off through the fences I went.”
Later that season, Pruett’s opportunity for victory came in the Marlboro 500 at Michigan in a late-race duel with Al Unser Jr. The five-time Rolex 24 overall winner led heading to the white flag but Unser Jr. went ahead coming to Turn 1.
“I’m thinking about the backstraight,” said Pruett. “I’m going to catch his draft, I’m going to fake to the inside and go straight to the high side. I’m going to carry that right up to the fence going into Turns 3 and 4 and it’s either checkers or wreckers. I mean, literally, I just said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going for it,’ and that’s exactly what I did.
“I’m right on the fence, he’s right below me, we’re kind of crowding and shoving each other and to beat him by just moments of a second, it was a big day.”
Watch a replay of the final lap here:
Pruett ended his open-wheel career in 1999 by earning Toyota’s first pole position in Indy car racing at the season-ending race at Auto Club Speedway. From there, he moved to NASCAR and eventually to his ultra-successful sports car years.
“There’s so many great memories I have (not just) in Indy car, but all racing,” he said. “I think that’s the common thing that I get asked and I say it’s so difficult because I’ve driven so many great cars on so many great tracks on so many different disciplines. I can’t pick one because all were great.
“I don’t think the fans are going to see what we saw during the mid-to-late ‘90s. You had engine wars, chassis wars, tire wars going on. The cars were so incredibly fast, the fans were insane and the cars were wicked to drive, so all those things together made it pretty magical.”