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.
Russell, who talked to both drivers, said there appeared to be no mechanical problems with either car. He believes the accidents was caused by the G-force stress on the cars and drivers, and the affect of turbulence from other cars.
‘Not an Issue of Track Safety’
CART President Joe Heitzler said attempts would be made to reschedule the race, and that determinations would be made on what changes could be made to the cars to make them safer at TMS.
"This is not an issue of safety at this track," Heitzler said. "This was safety of the drivers in their performance of their skills."
This was supposed to be the first of three CART races under the contract signed last summer. Gossage said track officials would be considering their options.
Gossage said it could be hard to clear a weekend date for CART for the rest of 2001. TMS is the only speedway in the country with every major form of American automobile racing — Winston Cup, Busch, NASCAR trucks, Indy Racing League and American Le Mans — and also is booked almost daily with racing schools.
The Indy Racing League has competed at Texas since the track opened, and returns June 9 for the first of two IRL races there this year. The IRL qualifying record of 225.979 mph was set by Billy Boat in 1998.
Heightened Concern After Earnhardt Crash
The postponement comes at a time when safety is a top concern in racing, the attention heightened after the death two months ago of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Four NASCAR drivers have been killed in the last 11 months, including truck series driver Tony Roper last October in the only fatal accident at Texas Motor Speedway since it opened in 1997. Roper was killed when he lost control of his truck in traffic on the frontstretch and slammed into the wall head-on.
CART drivers had a lengthy meeting last year after Patrick Carpentier crashed in practice for the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey in Laguna Seca, Calif. A year earlier, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed while practicing on that track.
Changes were made to the road course last year, and the race went on.
Based on his own experience driving Winston Cup cars in Texas, Rusty Wallace felt CART probably made the right decision. Wallace, who won the NASCAR race at California Speedway on Sunday, drives for CART veteran Roger Penske.
"I know the CART cars are so doggone fast and Texas is a little bit rough," Wallace said. "For those guys to run over 240 miles per hour, you've got to be some brave individuals to do that. I think the guys probably ran out and the brains started kicking in because to hit a wall over 240, that's a bad deal."
At the Harrah's 500 earlier this month at Texas, Dale Jarrett won with an average speed of 141.804 mph. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on the pole at 190.678.