By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
With the Texas Motor Speedway celebrating its 20th anniversary, there is good reason to reflect on the great racing that the venerable 1.5 mile oval has given us over the years.
In looking back, I often wonder about the one race that wasn’t held. The 2001 Firestone Firehawk 600 for the CART Series.
When the Texas Motor Speedway was still under construction, track manager and promoter, Eddie Gossage, had a vision that would see the new race track host all of the major American racing series. The track’s original design featured a unique double banking. The high line of the course was banked at 24 degrees to favor stock cars, while the lower section was banked at 8 degrees for open-wheeled machines.
Officials from the CART series were invited to inspect the track during construction, and after looking at the design, they decided that racing on the Texas oval would not be feasible. The idea of a CART race at Texas was shelved for the time being.
The dual banking proved to be an ill-conceived notion when the opening event for the track, a Winston Cup race, began with a thirteen car pileup and produced a crash-filled affair seeing ten caution periods for 73 laps. The track was re-configured in 1998, removing the lower banking, and adding a larger apron.
Gossage had managed to entice the fledgling Indy Racing League to add TMS to its schedule. The lower horsepower and higher downforce configuration of these cars made the high-banked track less problematic than the CART series.
With the reconfigured track, and the Speedway producing impressive attendance numbers, CART and TMS began negotiations for a date on the 2001 schedule. When they agreed on a tentative date, Gossage was ecstatic.
‘This is a great addition to our schedule,” said Gossage, ”The addition of CART to our schedule will make 2001 the single greatest racing season ever for any speedway. To have the distinction as the only speedway to host all major racing series is really quite remarkable.”
CART ran a test with Team Rahal driver, Kenny Brack, in December of 2000. Brack ran more than 100 laps testing a variety of rear wing configurations. Brack ran laps in the neighborhood of 214-217 mph most of the day with a fast lap just a tick over 221.
“As the teams get used to this type of track, it is going to result in an extremely competitive race,” said Brack. “There is going to be a lot of side-by-side racing and a lot of overtaking during the race. It is going to be fun.”
“The car felt very stable today even though the wind was pretty high,” Brack continued. “The car felt good in all of the different wing configurations that CART wanted to test.”
Perhaps the words of J. Kirk Russell, chief steward for CART at the time, were the most prophetic.
“The computer simulations showed the cars running faster than we found today.” said Russell. “We were very pleased with some of the preliminary figures regarding downforce and the loads produced here. Kenny told us the car was very manageable all day long.”
What followed from there was a series of private tests from the various teams during the month of February, with the fastest laps being recorded in the range of 226 mph.
The CART series, with their 1000 hp cars, were producing incredible speeds at the time. Gil de Ferran, in a Penske car, had run a record-breaking qualifying lap of 241.428 mph at the California Speedway, a facility purpose-built for IndyCars.
With Texas testing speeds well below that mark, concerns about high speeds and g-loads seemed to be quelled for the time being, and the race date was set for April 29, 2001.
With some of the CART drivers remarking that the track was quite bumpy, the surface was smoothed out prior to CART’s return.
When the track opened for Friday morning practice on race weekend, the smoother racing surface and the warmer temperatures saw many of the drivers top 230 mph on the track with Tony Kanaan running a lap at 233.539 mph.
On Friday afternoon, Marucio Guglemin had a horrifying crash that saw him smack the inside wall nose first at 66.2 G’s, and then slide down the back straight. Gugelmin then hit the outside wall, this time with the rear of his car, and a force of 113.1 G’s.
Guglemin was transported to North Richland Hills Hospital in Fort Worth. Thankfully, his injuries were limited to bruising of the shoulders and ribs. While it was reported at the time that Guglemin had not been rendered unconscious, the driver later stated that he, indeed, had blacked out for a short time following the impact.
Guglemin was not cleared to return to racing, as practice and qualifying continued.
Saturday morning practice saw the speeds climb again, with the top four drivers recording laps in excess of 236 mph, led by Paul Tracy in the Team KOOL Green car.
Concerns began to mount as a few drivers reported that that had experienced dizziness and feelings of vertigo during longer runs.
Tony Kanaan recounted, “I ran a 236.7 mph lap yesterday where my crew tells me the data showed me pulling 6.3 G’s in turn two. On Friday, I had to stop in the middle of a long run because I was feeling dizzy. That’s not right.”
Patrick Carpentier stated that he could not walk in a straight line for several minutes after exiting his car.
The series completed qualifying Saturday afternoon without incident, seeing Kenny Brack take the pole at a speed of 233.447, a TMS track record that stands to this day.
With driver safety concerns in mind, CART medical director, Dr. Steve Olvey, met with the drivers. Of the 25 drivers entered, 21 of them reported feeling dizzy or disorientated in the car, and some said that their vision became distorted.
The 5 – 6 lateral and vertical G-loads that the drivers were being subjected to was similar to what jet fighter pilots experience, albeit for a much shorter length of time.
Olvey went so far as to contact NASA regarding the effects that these g-loads could have on a driver over a sustained amount of time. His fears were confirmed as he learned that that sustained g-forces may lead to vertigo, blurred vision and even loss of consciousness behind the wheel.
CART attempted to assign a fix to the high speeds and g-loads late into Saturday evening, but it was too little too late.
On Sunday, two hours before the scheduled start, with more than 60,000 fans already in the grandstands, CART called a press conference announcing that the Firestone Firehawk 600 would not take place.
Alex Zanardi, returning to the series after a few seasons in Formula One, said “As it turns out, it’s the drivers, as human beings, who could not sustain the forces of going around the turns. I’m proud of the fact that CART did not compromise our safety and chose not to race.”
“I was probably one of the first to feel the effects, but I thought it was just me because I had not been on an oval since 1998.” the two-time champion continued. “By the time we got to our driver’s meeting yesterday afternoon, I saw that almost all of the drivers were feeling what I was feeling out there. In a way, I saw the forces as something of a challenge, but it’s just not safe, as the doctors say. It’s unfortunate.”
There was a glimmer of hope for a rescheduled date, but this did not come to pass.
As the fans were sent packing, and ESPN was left with a three-hour programming window to fill, legal action followed quickly.
Eddie Gossage and Texas Motor Speedway filed a breach of contract lawsuit that eventually cost CART 3.5 million dollars during a fiscal quarter where their earnings were reported as 1.8 million.
The devastating financial loss was one of a number of contributing factors that eventually led to CART filing for bankruptcy and being sold in 2003 to OWRS/ChampCar.
In the meantime, the current Verizon IndyCar Series continues an event at the Texas Motor Speedway that is a favorite among both drivers and fans.
Image: Fernandez Racing