Been quite a stellar week for IndyCar. The exciting news that TGBB was returning for another run as race director (and to overwhelming show of support from the fans) was followed rapidly by the cancellation of the season opener in Brazil.
The second headline means that it will be almost seven months between Will Power winning the 2014 championship and the start of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar series in St. Petersburg, Fla. unless a replacement race can be thrown together. But, in the process, Mark Miles has now joined an elite fraternity and a trend that began in 1980 adds another victim. This is at least the 11th CART/Champ Car/IndyCar race to get red-flagged before it had even happened, leaving open-wheel racing red-faced.
Of course Miles shouldn’t feel any worse than John Frasco, Andrew Craig, Joe Heitzler, Chris Pook or Randy Bernard because they all got burned trying to do something big or creative for the series they ran at that time. Politics, wildfires, G forces, naivety, stupidity and the almighty dollar all conspired to shut things down before a wheel was turned, with one exception.
So let’s take a quick tour of the races that were run only in our imaginations.
CHICAGO GRAND PRIX
In 1980, Carl Haas was approached about helping stage a Formula 1 race in the Windy City by the man who was instrumental in starting the Taste of Chicago. Not yet a co-owner with Paul Newman in CART, Haas was fielding a Can-Am car so he suggested a doubleheader with CART and Can-Am rather than F1.
A cool 2.7-mile road course was drawn up by SCCA biggie Burdie Martin and Haas that incorporated Lake Shore Drive, and Mayor Jane Byrne, who died just last November, loved it. In September of 1980, I attended a press conference that included Roger Penske, Rick Mears, Patrick Tambay and Haas as Mayor Byrne [RIGHT, with Mears, Chicago Tribune photo] announced the inaugural Chicago Grand Prix would be held the Fourth of July weekend in 1981. It was the shot in the arm CART and Indy cars needed.
And, of course, it was too good to be true. A backlash of public sentiment, led by Chicago columnist Mike Royko, blindsided Byrne and, six weeks after posing for pictures in Tambay’s Can-Am car, she pulled the plug. I’ve still got the press kit though.
HAWAIIAN SUPER PRIX
The brainchild of Rich Rutherford (no relation to Lone Star J.R.) and David Grayson, the Hawaiian Super Prix was set for Nov. 7-14, 1999, in Honolulu. The top 12 in the FedEx CART point standings at the end of the ’99 season (plus four other invited racers from other disciplines) would race for an unprecedented $5 million to win from a total purse of $10 million. The polesitter was to get $250,000. The three-hour event (two heats) would also be shown on Pay-Per-View with one lucky viewer winning $1 million.
“This will be an incredible way to end the millennium,” predicted Craig. The race supposedly had the full blessing of Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, who gushed about all the revenue that tax and charity dollars and tourism would bring Hawaii. Ah, but just 25 days prior to its scheduled running, the HSP was cancelled by the promoters.
It fell to pieces in more than one way, and the biggest reason came down to the flawed funding scheme they came up with. It wasn’t the first time an Indy car program was supposed to pay itself through subscribtions, but that’s exactly where the promoters figured all the income to host the event and pay the giant prize money sums would come from. Millions, they figured, would stream in through Pay-Per-View purchases. It never happened. Not even close. So few people paid in advance to see the Hawaiian Super Prix, it was sunk before it ever started.
Most of us had wanted to bet it would never happen but Vegas was too smart – there wasn’t a line.
FIRESTONE FIREHAWK 600
Texas Motor Speedway opened in 1997 and Tony George’s Indy Racing League finally had a hit on its hands with big crowds and close racing. CART decided it wanted to get in on a good thing and scheduled a race for April 29, 2001. But the IRL cars had a lot less horsepower and a lot more drag than CART cars and, even after a few teams tested at 225 mph, there were concerns about the 24-degree banked corners and G forces on the 1.5-mile oval.
Tony Kanaan ran 233 mph in morning practice on April 27 while Dario Franchitti’s trap speed crested 238 mph. Mo Gugelmin clouted the wall in Turn 1 and wound up in Turn 4 after an impact of 113Gs and withdrew with bruised shoulder and ribs. On Saturday morning, Paul Tracy turned a lap of 236mph and it was both breathtaking and frightening to watch him go through the corners. Kenny Brack won the pole at 233mph (Tony Stewart had the IRL mark of 224 mph) and the average speed for the 25 cars was 229 mph.
In a 23-second lap, drivers were sustaining 5Gs for 14-16 seconds and some complained about being dizzy or not being able to walk in a straight line after getting out of their car. After 21 of the 25 drivers admitted some kind of disorientation, Dr. Steve Olvey contacted a former NASA flight director who said the human body could not sustain more than 4.4Gs and suddenly, Houston (OK, Fort Worth), we’ve got a problem. On Saturday night CART officials talked about removing the rear wings, taking off the turbos or even putting a chicane in the backstretch to slow the speeds but it was decided to call off the race.
Marlo Katz and I announced it on ESPN’s Sports Center before it became official and track president Eddie Gossage lambasted CART in a press conference and sued CART for damages (and won a multi-million dollar settlement). But CART otherwise earned universal praise from around the motorsports world for protecting its drivers. The letters C-A-R-T were permanently removed from Gossage’s computer and he fined any employee for even mentioning go-karts.
KING TACO 500
The 2003 CART season was supposed to end at Fontana but ended up being cancelled due to wildfires in the area [RIGHT, ash coating the area] . Even though some of the CART safety workers aided the locals in fighting the blazes, it still ended with hard feelings. CART boss Pook issued a statement that said: “CART regrets the event had to be cancelled and we offered to explore every possible avenue, including running Monday or Tuesday at Phoenix International Raceway or running California Speedway [as it was then] sometime next week.”
But California Speedway president Bill Miller countered by stating: “Our release definitely said it was postponed, meaning we have the ability to reschedule. CART elected to cancel the event.” And PIR boss Bryan Sperber added: “I never talked to anyone from CART and wouldn’t have considered it anyway.”
GRAND PRIX OF SEOUL
Set for the fall of 2004, Champ Car scrapped it two weeks before it was supposed to run when it was learned that track construction was woefully behind schedule.
GRAND PRIX OF ANSAN
Scheduled to be Oct. 16, 2005 on a 1.9-mile road course 45 minutes from Seoul, Champ Car axed it on Sept. 28 because “the promoters were not prepared enough and not sticking to the requirements that are needed, based on our contract,” according to Champ Car VP Joe Chrnelich [LEFT, with Kevin Kalkhoven and Dick Eidswick]. And Champ Car officials told Mike Harris of the Associated Press that postponing Ansan for a year was a small setback and, besides, things were looking good for a street race in Otaru, Japan, for 2007…
CHAMP CAR, DENVER AND PHOENIX 2007
The seldom discussed but legendary Triple Toss was, ironically enough, in the record books for Champ Car’s final season. The Grand Prix of Denver [RIGHT] was cancelled on Feb. 1 for reasons I cannot remember but apathy rings a bell. Prior to the season opener in downtown Las Vegas (on the best street course ever) on Easter Sunday in which there were more painted eggs than paying customers, Champ Car announced the Grand Prix of China (whose original May 20 date had been postponed) would not be taking place after the FIA rejected its replacement date (Christmas Eve?).
Finally, in late August, the inaugural Grand Prix of Arizona (set for the fall) was terminated by the promoters who lost millions in Las Vegas three months earlier. But at least the standing starts worked quite well.
A race initially negotiated in 2010 was inherited on Randy Bernard’s watch and scheduled for Aug. 19, 2012 in Qingdao, China. [LEFT, This was as close as they came. Photo: Taiko Hattori]. The promoter was backed by the Mayor in power and it was full speed ahead with the track and ticket sales until that Mayor was upset in a 2012 election. The new boss wanted no part of a race so Bernard announced it was off the schedule in June of 2012. It was suggested he sued China and he’s still laughing about that.
The latest IndyCar race to be Xed out sounds like another political landmine. According to an AP story, public prosecutors warned that it would cost the local government too much ($100 million to renovate Nelson Piquet Autodromo) and waste public funds. They added it was “not in the best interest of society.”
Brasilia is also in the midst of a serious financial crisis and the government has been unable to pay salaries to many public workers, the story continued. MotoGP had already been cancelled at the track.
Miles claims ticket and suite sales were good and that IndyCar won’t get hurt financially. But, like everyone before him, he’s hopefully learned a valuable lesson about foreign races, promoters and governments. And having one international race is tough enough, let alone the pipe dream of a series.