CART drivers knew something wasn't right as they practiced at Texas Motor Speedway. They just didn't realize most of them were experiencing similar symptoms after dizzying laps.
In an unprecedented move, CART postponed the inaugural Firestone Firehawk 600 just before its start Sunday because of concerns about safety and the possibility of overbearing G forces causing the drivers to pass out while driving 250 laps.
"It was a problem all of these drivers were experiencing, but they had no clue what they were experiencing," said Michael Andretti, CART's winningest driver. "This is an area that we've never been before physically."
Dizzy and Disorientated
Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's medical director, said the first indication of a problem came Friday when two drivers — he didn't name them — pulled off the track after long stints at over 230 mph and said they were dizzy and disoriented.
Widespread problems were discovered when Olvey met with the 25 drivers after qualifying Saturday. All but four had experienced vertigo or a similar symptom after running more than 10 laps. The others, including Andretti, didn't go those distances.
"Everybody was silent," said driver Bryan Herta. "Each guy probably felt, `Well, I must be the only one having this problem.' CART was able to put it in an environment where everybody could come forward. It was shocking."
In Danger of Blacking Out
Olvey said extended exposure to the G force felt in practice — up to 5 ½ Gs — could have caused some drivers to lose consciousness during the race.
This was the first safety related postponement by CART since 1985, when tire concerns after qualifying delayed a race at Michigan International Speedway for six days.
Never before, however, had a race been postponed on the day of the event because of safety concerns.
CART never did open testing at Texas and was caught off guard by the impact of the 24-degree banking on the 1 ½-mile quadoval. By comparison, the banking at Indianapolis is just 9 degrees, and no other track in the CART series is steeper than 18 degrees.
The high banks allow drivers to go full-out around the entire track, so speeds were exceeding 230 mph.
Racing at 5 Gs Instead of 3
The combination of speed and high banking subjected drivers to G forces of more than 5 for 18 of the 22 seconds it took to complete a single lap, CART officials said. A range in the 3s is generally considered as high as drivers can endure on most tracks.
Eddie Gossage, TMS general manager, had his own concerns about the possible speeds. He had questioned CART constantly and encouraged testing since a three-year agreement with the circuit was signed last summer.
"The bottom line is CART should have known," Gossage said. "We questioned speed in letters and faxes. We even offered some of our own suggestions."
Kirk Russell, CART's chief steward, said the closed testing by Kenny Brack and others gave no reason for concern. Brack averaged 216-220 mph in testing last December.
The speeds were much faster this weekend, with Brack earning the pole for the race with a qualifying run of 233.447 Saturday. Four drivers broke the 236 barrier in practice Saturday.
Mauricio Gugelmin and series points leader Cristiano da Matta were the only drivers to have accidents in practice. In separate sessions, their cars spun out of control coming out of Turn 2 into the backstretch.