The 1996 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World was the first round of the 1996 Indy Racing League, and the inaugural event for the Indy Racing League, who initiated the American open-wheel split that would last for 12 years. The race was held on January 27, 1996, at the 1.000 mi (1.609 km) Walt Disney World Speedway in Bay Lake, Florida. The race was won by a rookie driver, Buzz Calkins, after leading 130 laps. Future Indy Racing League and NASCAR champion Tony Stewart also made his Indy car debut, finishing second after a late-race duel with Calkins.
The first event for the breakaway Indy Racing League took place at Walt Disney World Speedway, a brand new venue inaugurated on November 28, 1995. Testing began immediately with tire sessions held by Firestone and Goodyear, followed by an open test on December 4–8, with 16 drivers testing at some point. 13 of them were included in a tentative entry list published on December 6, highlighted by 1990 Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, IMS track record holder Roberto Guerrero, 1995 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Brayton and two full-time drivers from that year's IndyCar World Series season, Eddie Cheever and Eliseo Salazar. The veterans were joined by a handful of rookie drivers headlined by former Formula 1 race winner Michele Alboreto and Formula Atlantic champion Richie Hearn. All IndyCar teams refused to get involved in the IRL, and none of the top-16 drivers in the standings from the two previous IndyCar seasons was entered. Five other car-driver combinations entered for the opening round did not feature in testing during the month: Johnny O'Connell, Johnny Parsons and American Indycar drivers Rick DeLorto, Jim Buick and Tony Turco, who were joining fellow AIS competitors Butch Brickell and Bill Tempero.
During the Firestone tire session, Buddy Lazier tested in a Hemelgarn Racing car and set the fastest time of the week at 182.621 mph, with Hearn, Buzz Calkins and Salazar posting laps over 181 mph in the following days. John Paul Jr. shook down the Brickell Racing car for a couple dozen laps, and World of Outlaws multi-champion Steve Kinser tested with A. J. Foyt Racing during the Goodyear tire session, with a best lap of 168 mph that fell 5 mph short of Foyt's driver Davey Hamilton. Kinser aimed to reach a deal for an IRL ride alongside Hamilton, but that chance never materialized. Further testing followed from January 9–19, with 18 drivers taking part at some point, and five new signings being made during the week: Lazier, Paul Jr., Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl and Lyn St. James. The newly signed Lazier stayed way on top of the field, with a fastest lap of 185.089 mph, just days after clocking a 184.900 mph lap during a private test at Phoenix International Raceway. Brayton, Cheever, Salazar and Luyendyk also practiced over 181 mph. Paul Jr. was not able to test, as his car lacked an engine, with PDM Racing having to retort to a Buick-powered Team Menard back-up car to race at Orlando, and both Hearn and Guerrero were absent from testing.
On January 13, Butch Brickell broke two vertebrae in a hard crash at Turn 1, and was sidelined for the race itself, although he remained entered on an updated entry list, which reflected the withdrawal of Turco's entry because of sponsorship issues. Parsons had only completed six warm-up laps when a crash wiped his car out of testing, while O'Connell was only able to make his 64-lap debut on an Indy car at the last day of testing. That same day, Tony Stewart tested one of Team Menard's cars, and was announced later that day as their third driver for the season. John Menard intended on fielding Jim Crawford in the third car at Orlando, but he was persuaded by Cary Agajanian, USAC's vicepresident for the IRL and Stewart's legal advisor, to give the 24-year old driver a try. The first driver to have conquered the USAC Triple Crown, Stewart logged a best lap of 172 mph in only his second ever Indy car test, despite unknowingly running with a much-lowered turbo boost and a chassis that had been discarded by Cheever and Brayton for handling reasons. Stewart had been previously tapped by A. J. Foyt to drive for his team after a successful test at Phoenix in October 1995, but Foyt required him to step down from his handshake agreement to run a part-time NASCAR Busch Series schedule with Ranier-Walsh Racing, and Stewart declined the offer.
Out of the track, the animosity between the IRL and the IndyCar World Series (CART) had been fueled by the 25/8 Rule, perceived by CART teams as a measure to lock them out of the Indianapolis 500. Tensions escalated on December 19, when CART announced the creation of the U. S. 500, an event at Michigan International Speedway that would be held on Memorial Day, in direct opposition to the Indianapolis 500, and on January 11, when A. J. Foyt filed a $5 million suit against CART for anti-competitive practices. On 4 January, Oldsmobile was announced as the first engine supplier of the 4.0 V8 engine formula that the IRL was set to use from 1997. Five days later, Andy Evans bought the remaining share of Dick Simon in Scandia/Simon Racing, which would still compete under that name at Walt Disney World. That left A. J. Foyt as the only full-time owner from the 1995 season to compete at Orlando.
Practice and qualifying
On Wednesday, January 24, Tempero/Giuffre Racing entered David Kudrave in a second car, before rookie orientation began. Also, A. J. Foyt Enterprises entered Mike Groff in a third car on Thursday before the start of practice, hiring the Sinden Racing Services rental crew headed by Jeff Sinden to run the car during the season. Richie Hearn led the first day of practice with a 181.827 mph lap, with Buddy Lazier in close pursuit. They would be the only drivers to dip into the 180 mph mark during the weekend, with Roberto Guerrero in third at just 179.292 mph. With three drivers from American Indycar still entered, IRL officials did not clear any of them to keep competing: Bill Tempero, whose best lap was a 152.207 mph, and Rick DeLorto, clearly off the pace at just 107.223 mph in the best of his 30 laps, failed to complete their driver's tests, while Jim Buick's car never appeared on pit road, although the driver himself was present.
On Friday morning practice, Eliseo Salazar clipped the wall at the exit of Turn 3 and lost control of the car, crashing first into the front-straight inside wall, and then right side into the Turn 1 outside wall. In that second impact, a stabilizing rod went through his cockpit, penetrating his right leg. Salazar was transported by helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he underwent surgeries for a fractured femur and thigh injuries, being listed afterwards in stable condition. Lazier led the session with a lap at 181.800 mph, followed by Hearn and Arie Luyendyk.
Lazier, who had not started higher than 16th in his previous 55 Indy car races, qualified on pole with a best lap of 181.388 mph. Hearn fell just short of the 181 mph mark, settling for second on his first Indy car qualifying session. Seasoned veterans Guerrero and Luyendyk, who used a back-up car that would be later renumbered, qualified third and fourth, in front of Scott Sharp and five further rookies. As expected by the nuances of their stock block engine, Team Menard struggled in qualifying, although Tony Stewart surprised by outqualifying his more established teammates, Eddie Cheever and Scott Brayton, despite having only completed 67 laps in winter testing.
John Paul Jr. had the only incident of the session after brushing the wall in Turn 2, completing only one timed lap at 160 mph. Unlike Stewart and Groff, who ran on competitive race cars, other drivers at the bottom of the field mirrored Paul Jr.'s issues that stemmed from the lack of mileage: Johnny O'Connell, who only passed his driver test during the morning practice, got stuck at 167 mph; Johnny Parsons, without any laps at speed during winter testing, barely went over 153 mph, and David Kudrave, with no testing mileage whatsoever, put his car on the grid at just 146.353 mph, a 35 mph, 4.5 second deficit over Lazier's time. On raceday, he would be black flagged after just four laps.
On Friday afternoon practice, held after qualifying, Eddie Cheever and Richie Hearn collided and crashed at Turn 1 when Cheever went low on Hearn's path. Both drivers were unhurt, but their chassis were damaged beyond repair, and had to race with spare cars. They were allowed to start at the back of the field, after taking part in a 15-minute special warm-up session. Because of their lack of a competitive spare car, Della Penna had to reach a deal with Pagan Racing to use Roberto Guerrero's back-up unit. The Colombian was now due to start on the front row because of Hearn's demotion, which left Buzz Calkins as the best placed rookie in the 5th spot. Like Lazier, Scott Sharp had a much improved career-best grid spot in the 2nd row, having never started higher than 13th before.
Failed to qualify or withdrew
- Eliseo Salazar - for Scandia/Simon Racing
- Rick DeLorto R - for DeLorto Motorsports
- Bill Tempero - for Tempero/Giuffre Racing
Packed grandstands, estimated at 50,742 spectators, witnessed the grand opening of the Indy Racing League on Saturday. The start lacked a proper alignment, as only the first two rows and a couple of others in the back were loosely side by side before Lazier started to accelerate entering Turn 4, and the majority saw the green flag in single file. Roberto Guerrero was caught off-guard by Lazier's getaway, and Arie Luyendyk passed him for second place entering Turn 1. On Lap 10, Tony Stewart completed his first overtake on Davey Hamilton for sixth, and had worked his way up to third when the first caution came out on Lap 18. Richie Hearn had already gained 12 positions and was running in 7th place when a sway bar adjuster broke on his car, causing him to spin at the exit of Turn 1. Stewart overtook Luyendyk at the restart on Lap 24 and grabbed the lead five laps later.
Lazier began to lose pace with a loose right front upright and, just after being passed by Luyendyk for second place on Lap 37, he headed to the pits, where Hemelgarn's crew spent a minute and a half sorting out the issue. In a later pit stop, his team choose to take parts from Stéphan Grégoire's car, already retired after suffering gearbox issues in his pit stop while running ninth, and put them in Lazier's car. However, handling issues persisted, and Lazier dropped out before the halfway point. Around Lap 30, Buzz Calkins started mounting a charge towards the front, overtaking Scott Sharp on Lap 32, Guerrero on Lap 35 and Luyendyk on Lap 51. Heavy traffic after the pit stops helped Calkins catch Stewart on Lap 55, and he took the lead on Lap 66, just before the second round of pit stops.
While heading to the pits, Luyendyk ran out of fuel, and his car stalled while exiting the pit box, needing a push start. Traffic, solid pace and a fast pit stop by Calkins, executed two laps after Stewart's, allowed him to open a huge gap: on Lap 84, only Stewart (15.3 seconds behind) and Guerrero (17.2 seconds) were still on the lead lap, and by the halfway mark, a cautious Stewart was 21 seconds behind Calkins, before the Menard driver reacted in order to not lose a lap, staying within 15 seconds of the leader. Behind him, Luyendyk began to regain ground, steadily climbing up to 7th place on Lap 127. However, his gearbox had been compromised after the pit issues, and the Byrd/Leberle-Treadway driver lost all gears during his third stop, forcing him to retire.
Rookie Stan Wattles was running in fourth place, after overtaking Davey Hamilton on Lap 35 and having stayed largely out of trouble. On Lap 147, shortly after a pit stop, he spun on Turn 2 and hit the inside wall, in what he described as "a rookie mistake". The ensuing caution allowed Stewart to cut back the gap with Calkins, and Robbie Buhl, who had not made his third stop, gained five positions as he pitted under yellow, rejoining in third place over Michele Alboreto, Roberto Guerrero, who suffered a brief stall in his pit stop, and Hamilton. Further back, Eddie Cheever had gotten up to ninth place, his progress having been hampered by the same handling issues that had forced his teammate Scott Brayton to retire from the race. With lapped cars in between, Calkins opened again a small gap of 3 seconds over Stewart.
On Lap 178, Davey Hamilton crashed out of sixth place after a sudden mechanical failure on Turn 2. The race restarted on Lap 184, and Cheever, who had passed Johnny O'Connell 20 laps before, took seventh place over Scott Sharp. When Sharp tried to take back the position, both drivers collided on Lap 189, in a crash that resembled the one Cheever and Hearn had the day before, Cheever being on the outside of Turn 1 this time. Calkins made it safely through the scene, but Stewart encountered the safety vehicles on his path, and had to swerve abruptly to avoid hitting them. He brushed the outside wall at low speed and run over some debris, suffering a sliced tire and a bent front wing, but both issues went largely unnoticed and Stewart kept on running. When the race was restarted with six laps to go, Stewart began hounding Calkins for the lead, but he lost some ground shortly after because of the damages to the car, and a late charge was not enough to stip the win away from Buzz Calkins, who took the checkered flag by eight tenths of a second.
With his win, Calkins became the first American driver (and the only one as of 2020) to win his first Indy car race, in a feat only equalled in modern Indy car racing by Formula 1 world champions Graham Hill at the 1966 Indianapolis 500 and Nigel Mansell at the 1993 Australian FAI IndyCar Grand Prix, per IndyCar's record book. This would also be the only win for Calkins in his 6-year Indy car career. As most of the drivers were rookies or had an unheralded career in IndyCar, the end results signified personal milestones for some of them. Tony Stewart settled for second in what was his first start in an rear-engine open wheel car, and Robbie Buhl also scored his first Indy car podium, improving on the sixth place he got at the 1993 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Mike Groff equalled his sixth place in the 1994 Valvoline 200 at Phoenix, while Lyn St. James scored the only top-10 of her Indy car career, with an 8th-place finish.
- Average Speed: 128.325 mph (206.519 km/h)
- Lead changes: 6 among 6 drivers
Standings after the race
Mike King and newcomer Vince Welch were the pit reporters.
The race was carried live flag-to-flag coverage in the United States on ABC Sports.