GK on the Texas 'Boondoggle'

All winter there were serious concerns about CART attempting to race its Champ cars at the high-banked 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Those concerns quickly coalesced during practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday and after lengthy meetings with the drivers and team owners on Saturday evening a decision was taken in the middle of Sunday morning to not run the race. In theory it's been "postponed", but the calendars of both CART and the Texas Motor Speedway are so crowded that it's extremely unlikely, if not impossible, for the race to be run at a later date

GK on the Texas 'Boondoggle'

CART's CEO Joe Heitzler, vice-president of competition Kirk Russell and the organisation's director of medical affairs Dr Steve Olvey made the point that it was potential medical problems for the drivers from the abnormally high G-forces that caused the postponement rather than worries about the track's layout and banking. CART's cars were more than 10mph faster than the less powerful IRL cars which also have much more downforce, and this extra speed resulted in a quantum leap in G-loads.

"A situation developed on Friday of this weekend that in the 25 years I've been involved in motor sports I have never heard of or seen at any other racing venue," said Dr Olvey. "It came to my attention that two drivers pulled off the racetrack after long stints at over 230mph because they were experiencing rather severe dizziness and light-headedness and felt that they could no longer safely control the race car. Then on Saturday a driver came into our medical unit for another reason and said, 'something really funny happened to me today. When I got out of the race car I couldn't stand or walk straight for four or five minutes.' This led me to think that possibly we were having a problem with too high G-loading at these speeds on this particular type of racetrack."

Olvey talked to a friend of his, Dr Richard Jennings, a former NASA flight director and aerospace medicine researcher. "He said the human tolerance to vertical G-loading in a sitting position in a boat, aeroplane, or car, is somewhere between 4 and 5, depending on the individual." Jennings told Olvey that the addition of high lateral G loads further aggravates the situation.

Dr Olvey then looked at some data from one of the teams and discovered that instantaneous G-loadings of 4.33 were recorded with sustained G-loadings of 3.36 in the turns at either end of the track. Olvey said lateral loadings were over 5 Gs and that the combination of all these loadings can seriously affect the inner ear and blood supply to the brain.

"This causes dizziness and light-headedness to the point of disorientation so that you don't know if you're right side up or upside down," Dr Olvey commented. "The poor blood supply affects the eye and retina so that a driver gets tunnel-vision, then loses colour vision and will have a grey-out and eventually become unconscious and black-out. This is why pilots are required to wear G-suits in fighter planes."

Dr Olvey explained these effects to the drivers and discovered that all but four of them had experienced some of these symptoms and come into the pits as a result. The four drivers who had escaped such feelings had only run a few laps at any time.

"It takes a few laps for this to come on and the average was somewhere between 25 and 40 laps where the drivers began to experience this. So I felt very great concern because this was uncharted territory. Nobody had been in this realm before and we really could not send drivers out in a situation that is totally unknown with the risk of having a driver becoming disoriented or actually become unconscious in the car trying to compete in a race."

All this is absolutely true and every driver had a story of his own to corroborate Dr Olvey's analysis. There is no doubt CART took the correct decision but the question is why on earth did they not run some serious tests at the track to determine the specific problems well before the race weekend? All the teams and their engineers knew there were going to be problems running at Texas and most people had serious concerns about the race.

Four years ago when the speedway was first built CART's former chief steward Wally Dallenbach inspected the track and declared that it wasn't safe for Champ cars. He said the banked track was too steep and the corners too tight with insufficient banking to properly carry the cars off and onto the straightaways. But because it is a publicly-traded company with constant pressure to produce annual profits, CART is under pressure to add races to its calendar with large sanction fees and this was a primary motivation to deciding to attempt to race in Texas. Another reason was that some sponsors wanted their teams to appear in the booming Dallas market so that commercialism overruled safety.

Texas Motor Speedway general manager Eddie Gossage was strongly critical of CART. "The bottom line is that CART should have known," Gossage said. "They should have run sufficient tests months and months ago. We questioned the speeds in meetings and letters. We even offered some of our own suggestions of what to do to the cars. On April 1st I got a letter from Joe Heitzler saying CART is ready and willing to run the race. That was in response to some of the questions we were still raising 10 days ago about the cars and speeds."

Gossage said CART did not raise any questions about running the race until Saturday night. "Let me stress to you that neither Texas Motor Speedway nor any of its fans would want the drivers to compete in an event that poses an unnecessary risk," Gossage added. "However, Texas Motor Speedway and its fans have suffered tremendously. TMS has played no role in any of the meetings this weekend to determine how to slow the cars, however, some fans will blame TMS and that obviously is tremendously damaging. We will have a meeting in the near future to consider our options."

The track has a three-year contract with CART and Gossage said it is entirely possible that TMS may sue CART for damages. "That certainly is an option, yes," Gossage confirmed. "We've spent millions of dollars and made changes to the racetrack at CART's request and we have a contract to run a CART race on April 29, 2001, and we're not doing that. I hope it doesn't get to that point."

Gossage said he wasn't sure whether this year's TMS race would be run at a later date. "Postponed or cancelled, I can't tell you. We need to meet and have a clear understanding. Our contract says April 29, and to be quite honest this is one of the busiest speedways in the world and it will be hard to clear a date in 2001. There's a credibility issue between CART and the Texas Motor Speedway, and between CART and the fans, so that doesn't make it easy."

Unfortunately, Gossage is dead right that CART's credibility, already in serious trouble, has taken another big punch in the stomach. More than ever, CART needs a successful, controversy-free season. Hopefully, that will begin next weekend at Nazareth...

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CART postpones Texas indefinitely (updated)

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