Remembering Jeff Krosnoff

Twenty years ago today, during a CART World Series race in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, thirty-one year old series rookie Jeff Krosnoff, and circuit corner worker Gary Arvin, lost their lives in a horrific crash in the final laps of the race.

Krosnoff is sadly, and very unfortunately, more remembered more for the awful manner in which he died, rather than the amazing racing life he lived. And his amazing journey in motorsport, that saw Krosnoff compete across North America, Japan, and even here and there in Europe, includes a brief stay in what we now know as Super GT.

Born in Oklahoma, raised in California, Krosnoff’s journey into racing began when he was studying in high school – where he befriended the daughter of former Formula 1 driver, Ronnie Bucknum. After studying at the University of California-San Diego and University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) for several years, Krosnoff began his racing career, starting in Formula Ford, before moving up to contest Formula Mazda and the Atlantic Championship.

After years of struggling to find the budget to advance up the North American single-seater ladder, and detours into series such as the bizarre short-lived SCCA RaceTruck Challenge (a road racing series for small pickup trucks), Krosnoff had the opportunity to advance his career in an entirely unique way, when he signed for Speed Star Racing Team in the Japanese Formula 3000 series – as a protege of the legendary Masahiro Hasemi.

American athletes have become superstars in Japan, such as in baseball where Randy Bass and Tuffy Rhodes are considered all-time legends of the game. Or in pro wrestling, where you can pick from Stan Hansen, Terry Funk, or Krosnoff’s fellow Oklahoma native “Dr. Death” Steve Williams – just to name a few of the great American wrestlers who’ve become big in Japan.

But in motorsport, an American driver racing in Japan to make their name is almost unheard of today, and probably unfathomable to comprehend in the late 1980s.

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Yet, for eight seasons, Krosnoff raced admirably in Japan, against the likes of Japanese legends like Hasemi and six-time Top Formula champion Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and against his fellow foreign drivers who had all found their way to Japan seeking a chance to race in Formula 1. Like future Formula 1 star Eddie Irvine, and future Le Mans grand champion, Tom Kristensen.

A glance at Krosnoff’s Japanese F3000 record in his career from 1988 to 1995 doesn’t seem too impressive on the surface, with only four career podium finishes. But ask any of the people that raced against him, especially Irvine, Kristensen, and his best friend Mauro Martini – and they’ll tell you that if Krosnoff consistently had the best equipment year in and year out, he’d easily have won multiple races and championships in F3000.

Krosnoff prided himself as a single-seater racer first and foremost, yet ironically, he had greater success in his “secondary” focus of sports car racing. This included being one of the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship’s very first superstars, and a trailblazer for Toyota’s GT500 programme.

Krosnoff made his JGTC debut in September, 1994, at the penultimate round of the season at Sportsland Sugo, driving the all-new SARD Toyota Supra GT.

Immediately, Krosnoff demonstrated the Supra’s potential when he qualified second in his first-ever race, though a mechanical failure ended his day early. Here’s Krosnoff, being interviewed before the race for Japanese television – mismatching shoes and all:

The following race, in the season finale at Mine Circuit, Krosnoff gave the Toyota Supra its first-ever JGTC pole position in just his, and the team’s, second race.

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For 1995, Krosnoff and SARD returned to contest the full season, with an updated and reinvigorated version of the Supra – that now carried the familiar red and white colours of Denso that have become synonymous with Team SARD in Super GT.

In the opening race at the legendary Suzuka Circuit, Krosnoff started fifth, climbed up into the top three, raced wheel-to-wheel with the likes of defending champion Masahiko Kageyama in the Calsonic Skyline GT-R, and after falling down the order for a bit, surged through the field to finish third – giving the Toyota Supra its first ever podium finish.

Here’s the full broadcast, courtesy of the great Japanese motorsport archivist RocketPencil – which features plenty of action involving Krosnoff, including an interview at the 57 minute mark:

When they returned to Sugo later in the year, Krosnoff gave the Denso Supra its second pole position, and its second podium finish – another third place.

Between the two podium finishes, Krosnoff climbed six places from eleventh to finish fifth at Sendai Hi-Land Raceway in the third round of the season – a race that saw the Castrol TOM’s Supra of rookie Michael Krumm and newly-crowned Le Mans champion Masanori Sekiya take the Toyota Supra’s first-ever victory, and Krosnoff himself mixing it up with young Akira Iida and the great Kunimitsu Takahashi for fourth place in the later laps.

Here’s the first part of that race in full:

Those great performances were enough to secure eighth place in the 1995 GT1 (now GT500) Drivers’ Championship.

More importantly, by the end of 1995, as Krosnoff was working on finding a way to come home to America to race for the first time in nearly a decade, Toyota’s JGTC programme was now well-established as a legitimate contender, with SARD, TOM’s, and Team Cerumo all in the fold in 1995, all competing for wins on a regular basis.

Krosnoff is still the only American driver to race in what is now the GT500 class in Super GT. Only two other Americans have ever raced in the series at all since then: Ukranian-American dual citizen Igor Sushko, and Michael Kim.

Perhaps Krosnoff’s best-known sports car racing effort came in the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he, Irvine, and his best friend Martini were dominating the race in their Toyota 94C-V – a race they dedicated to their late friend Ratzenberger, who was set to drive the car before his fatal accident in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

With 90 minutes to go, all Krosnoff needed was a clean end to his stint before giving Irvine the honour of crossing the chequered flag to give Toyota their first Le Mans victory. But then the car crawled to a stop just past the start/finish line with a broken gearbox. Krosnoff leapt from his car and physically jammed the car back into gear to get it back to the pits. But the subsequent service time cost them the overall victory, and Irvine had to rally back just to finish 2nd.

Toyota, of course, is still looking for that first Le Mans victory.

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For 1996, Krosnoff signed with Arciero Wells Racing in the CART World Series, equipped with brand-new Toyota engines. Down on horsepower and lacking experience, Krosnoff’s rookie season was filled with growing pains.

But finally, after the decade away from his family and friends in the United States, in his unorthodox yet oh-so-remarkable pursuit of the dream of reaching the pinnacle of motorsport, Jeff Krosnoff had finally come home.

And mid-way through the season, Krosnoff’s Arciero Wells team landed telecom giant MCI as a sponsor, and they were starting to string together finishes and consistent results. By the eleventh round of the season in Toronto, Jeff Krosnoff was legitimately starting to turn the corner on his trial by fire rookie season in CART.

Then, the brutal hand of tragedy struck with cold, and unforgiving power, with just three laps remaining in the race. Racing with Stefan Johansson for fifteenth place, Krosnoff clipped the back of Johansson’s car enough to cause it to go airborne, into the way of a light post that for some ungodly reason, was not protected by the meters of catchfencing that lined the rest of Lake Shore Boulevard.

It was, for Krosnoff and Arvin, the ultimate unsurvivable disaster.

Krosnoff’s long time friend, Tommy Kendall, credits Krosnoff as being one of, if not the very first racing drivers, to implement a stringent physical fitness plan as part of their training – something that’s now standard for all racing drivers.

He had one of the most vibrant personalities in racing, one that made him a beloved figure in Japan despite not being the most fluent Japanese speaker by his own admission. He was well-liked in his brief time in CART by his fellow drivers and mechanics, and would have grown to become just as well-liked among fans if his life was not cut so drastically short.

Jeff Krosnoff was not just a racing driver, he was a musician, a photographer, an educated man in many fields from business to psychology, and in the early 1990s, one of the earliest drivers to write for an upstart publication called RACER Magazine.

And most importantly, Krosnoff was a devoted husband to his wife Tracy, throughout all the travels and tribulations of Jeff’s racing career – and Tracy remained every bit as supportive and loyal to him in return.

These words alone still do not capture how fondly he is remembered by every person in the motorsport community – drivers, team owners, mechanics, and fans alike – by everyone who knew him. I highly recommend reading Marshall Pruett’s multi-part feature series about Krosnoff’s life for more about this great driver.

After his death, the Jeff Krosnoff Scholarship Fund was established to help students from the state of California go to college and realize their own dreams. More information about the Jeff Krosnoff Scholarship can be found here.

Jeffrey John Krosnoff
24 September 1964 – 14 July 1996
“Stay Hungry”

 

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