F O R T W O R T H, Texas, April 30, 2001 -- 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 FirestoneFirehawk 600 just before its start Sunday because of concerns aboutsafety and the possibility of overbearing G forces causing thedrivers to pass out while driving 250 laps.
"It was a problem all of these drivers were experiencing, butthey had no clue what they were experiencing," said MichaelAndretti, CART's winningest driver. "This is an area that we'venever been before physically."
Dizzy and Disorientated
Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's medical director, said the firstindication of a problem came Friday when two drivers — he didn'tname them — pulled off the track after long stints at over 230 mphand said they were dizzy and disoriented.
Widespread problems were discovered when Olvey met with the 25drivers after qualifying Saturday. All but four had experiencedvertigo or a similar symptom after running more than 10 laps. Theothers, including Andretti, didn't go those distances.
"Everybody was silent," said driver Bryan Herta. "Each guyprobably felt, `Well, I must be the only one having this problem.'CART was able to put it in an environment where everybody couldcome 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 consciousnessduring the race.
This was the first safety related postponement by CART since1985, when tire concerns after qualifying delayed a race atMichigan International Speedway for six days.
Never before, however, had a race been postponed on the day ofthe event because of safety concerns.
CART never did open testing at Texas and was caught off guard bythe impact of the 24-degree banking on the 1 ½-mile quadoval. Bycomparison, the banking at Indianapolis is just 9 degrees, and noother track in the CART series is steeper than 18 degrees.
The high banks allow drivers to go full-out around the entiretrack, so speeds were exceeding 230 mph.
Racing at 5 Gs Instead of 3
The combination of speed and high banking subjected drivers to Gforces of more than 5 for 18 of the 22 seconds it took to completea single lap, CART officials said. A range in the 3s is generallyconsidered as high as drivers can endure on most tracks.
Eddie Gossage, TMS general manager, had his own concerns aboutthe possible speeds. He had questioned CART constantly andencouraged testing since a three-year agreement with the circuitwas signed last summer.
"The bottom line is CART should have known," Gossage said."We questioned speed in letters and faxes. We even offered some ofour own suggestions."
Kirk Russell, CART's chief steward, said the closed testing byKenny Brack and others gave no reason for concern. Brack averaged216-220 mph in testing last December.
The speeds were much faster this weekend, with Brack earning thepole for the race with a qualifying run of 233.447 Saturday. Fourdrivers broke the 236 barrier in practice Saturday.
Mauricio Gugelmin and series points leader Cristiano da Mattawere the only drivers to have accidents in practice. In separatesessions, their cars spun out of control coming out of Turn 2 intothe backstretch.
Russell, who talked to both drivers, said there appeared to beno mechanical problems with either car. He believes the accidentswas caused by the G-force stress on the cars and drivers, and theaffect of turbulence from other cars.
‘Not an Issue of Track Safety’
CART President Joe Heitzler said attempts would be made toreschedule the race, and that determinations would be made on whatchanges 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 theirskills."
This was supposed to be the first of three CART races under thecontract signed last summer. Gossage said track officials would beconsidering their options.
Gossage said it could be hard to clear a weekend date for CARTfor the rest of 2001. TMS is the only speedway in the country withevery major form of American automobile racing — Winston Cup,Busch, NASCAR trucks, Indy Racing League and American Le Mans — andalso is booked almost daily with racing schools.
The Indy Racing League has competed at Texas since the trackopened, and returns June 9 for the first of two IRL races therethis year. The IRL qualifying record of 225.979 mph was set byBilly Boat in 1998.
Heightened Concern After Earnhardt Crash
The postponement comes at a time when safety is a top concern inracing, the attention heightened after the death two months ago ofNASCAR 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 onlyfatal accident at Texas Motor Speedway since it opened in 1997.Roper was killed when he lost control of his truck in traffic onthe frontstretch and slammed into the wall head-on.
CART drivers had a lengthy meeting last year after PatrickCarpentier crashed in practice for the Honda Grand Prix of Montereyin Laguna Seca, Calif. A year earlier, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez waskilled while practicing on that track.
Changes were made to the road course last year, and the racewent 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, drivesfor CART veteran Roger Penske.
"I know the CART cars are so doggone fast and Texas is a littlebit rough," Wallace said. "For those guys to run over 240 milesper hour, you've got to be some brave individuals to do that. Ithink the guys probably ran out and the brains started kicking inbecause to hit a wall over 240, that's a bad deal."
At the Harrah's 500 earlier this month at Texas, Dale Jarrettwon with an average speed of 141.804 mph. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was onthe pole at 190.678.