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March 24 in Motorsports History: Hornish edges Lazier in thriller at Fontana

Any time Indy cars race on a superspeedway, fans should expect a lot of lead changes and an exciting finish.

The 2002 IRL race at California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway) delivered just that.

While California had established itself as a regular stop on the CART and NASCAR circuits since 1997, the IRL was a new attraction at the facility in 2002.

The crowd for the race was nothing to write home about, as only 20,000 spectators were in attendance at the 91,000 seat facility. But those who did show up likely did not regret their decision.

The Yamaha Indy 400 featured 39 lead changes between eight drivers, with the race coming down to a side-by-side battle for the win by Sam Hornish Jr, and Jaques Lazier in the final laps.

Lazier and Eddie Cheever Jr. were battling out for the lead in the remaining laps when Cheever’s engine blew on Lap 191. Hornish, who was sitting in the third position at the time, then moved up to second and began using the draft to catch up to Lazier.

With five laps remaining, Hornish was within striking distance of Lazier. With two laps remaining, both drivers were side by side.

Hornish then passed Lazier on the frontstretch to take the lead, but Lazier quickly regained control, passing Hornish on the inside as both drivers raced out of Turn 2.

Tucking in behind Lazier down the backstrech, Hornish went high going into Turn 3 and held a slight advantage over Lazier exiting Turn 4. The cars then raced side by side to the finish line, but Hornish was able to narrowly hold on to win by 0.028 seconds.

“That was a lot of fun all the way down to the end,” Hornish told ESPN in victory lane. “With five laps to go, it didn’t matter who was going to win it. It was going to be a great race.”

At the time, the finish was the second-closest in IndyCar history. Later in the 2002 season, Hornish would win in the current closest finish in IndyCar history, defeating Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds to win at Chicagoland Speedway.

California Speedway continued to host the IRL through the 2005 season, while CART held its last race at the facility in November 2002 ( a CART race was originally scheduled for the 2003 season but eventually was canceled because of wildfires in the nearby San Bernadino Mountains). The reunified IndyCar Series eventually made a four-year return to the facility from 2012-15.

Also on this date:

1960: Scott Pruett was born on this date in Roseville, California. Pruett is tied with Bill Abuerlen as the winningest driver in IMSA history, with 60 victories.

1991: Ayrton Senna finally wins the Grand Prix of Brazil, his home race. Senna went on to win his third and final Formula One World Championship later that season.

2019: Colton Herta became the youngest winner in IndyCar history by taking the checkered flag in the inaugural IndyCar Classic at Circuit of Americas. Herta was 18 years, 11 months, and 25 days old.