Inside CART's 2001 Texas debacle: The lead-up

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Inside CART's 2001 Texas debacle: The lead-up

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Inside CART's 2001 Texas debacle: The lead-up

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The rookie driver from France didn’t know what to expect from American oval racing.

Part of Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2001 changeover from Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, Nic Minassian had mastered road racing during his pursuit of a Formula 1 career. But when it came to lapping at more than 230mph at Texas Motor Speedway when CART made its inaugural visit to the 1.5-mile oval, Minassian was a neophyte. It made TCGR’s brave and aggressive new hope the perfect foil for all that would take place during one of CART’s most notorious failures.

Stunned by all he encountered on his oval debut, Minassian lacked the experience to know he’d been thrown into a most unusual mechanical tornado. As cars whipped around at blood-draining speeds, most drivers fought the effects of spinning in the world’s fastest washing machine. One driver, overcome by the relentless cornering and gravity’s extreme pull, was briefly lulled to sleep, waking with an urgent need to turn left at 235mph.

“You felt like your face was being pulled out of your helmet in the corners,” Minassian says.

By the time the chapter was closed 20 years ago on the ill-fated Firestone Firehawk 600, law suits had been filed, lifelong grudges were formed, and an indelible stain was left on the sport.

In a three-part series, RACER looks back at what happened when the world’s fastest open-wheel cars went to the wrong track, as told by 12 people who were there.

Ready for action in 1997, Texas Motor Speedway launched its inaugural season by playing host to a NASCAR event in April and the brand-new Indy Racing League in June. Massive grandstands packed with fans affirmed the decision by parent company Speedway Motorsports Incorporated to plant its flag in Texas with a big, fast bullring featuring significant banking in the corners. NASCAR and the IRL would become the main attractions at TMS through 2000.

Mike Zizzo, CART VP of Communications 1996-2002, Texas Motor Speedway VP of Communications 2005-2019: There was a ton of excitement considering that we were going to a great facility like that that was fairly new, and you had a great promoter with Eddie Gossage in terms of taking a new event and putting it on a big stage. Dallas-Fort Worth was really booming at the time; it had become a top five market, and that’s why it jumped out as a place CART should look into for a race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Negotiations between CART and TMS opened during the summer of 2000, and CART’s board of directors approved its addition to the 2001 schedule. An event date of April 27-29 was eventually chosen, making TMS the fourth stop on the calendar after opening at Mexico on March 11, moving to Brazil to race on March 25, and Long Beach on April 8.

Chris Kneifel, IndyCar, Sports Car Driver, CART Chief Steward and Director of Competition 2001-2005: I remember when the contract was signed between Texas Speedway and CART, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s odd.’ It didn’t seem to be the best fit. It had been an IRL race up until then. I guess they were going to have both in the calendar year of 2001, but I thought that was strange. And then I thought a little bit more about it. At the time Bobby Rahal was the interim president of CART and Eddie Gossage was obviously the head of the Texas Speedway, and Bobby and Eddie’s relationship goes well back to the Miller days in CART. So (through) he and Eddie’s relationship, they were able to make something happen.

Despite the vast technological and performance-related differences between the IRL and CART formulas, the last IRL race of 2000, held over October 13-15 at TMS, gave a glimpse of where the low-tech, all-oval series registered at the track with Greg Ray’s run to pole at 215.352mph in his Team Menard Dallara-Oldsmobile.

Six days before Christmas, Rahal’s CART team ventured south to a frosty Texas where Kenny Brack, an IRL veteran and Indy 500 winner with five TMS starts before moving to its rival series, performed a test that would set the benchmark in his Reynard-Ford/Cosworth for CART’s maiden race on the oval. A number of errors in CART’s approach to preparing itself for TMS followed.

CART’s call on TMS’s viability was based on a single-car test involving Kenny Brack, in very different conditions to what the field faced when it returned for the race. Motorsport Images

Mike Zizzo: From a competition perspective, we had that one test with Kenny and he only ran high teens, low 220s.

Kenny Brack: We tested there in the wintertime and it felt OK with the level of speeds. It was really windy, and we did not run quality downforce nor a qualifying engine.

Robin Miller: The only test they did was with Rahal and Kenny Brack before signing off on it. And the temperature was nothing compared to when they’d race; it was real cool. And they didn’t do a lot of laps. They didn’t give it much of a chance.

Kenny Brack: I remember [name withheld] coming down and asked me how it felt, and I said ‘It’s very windy.’ He said ‘Well, it’s the same for everybody.’ It was, but I was the only one testing…

Mike Zizzo: There were no concerns at all when he ran that test, but it was a limited test. We never ran a full-field test. I know that I was pushing forward selfishly from a PR perspective, and on the track side they wanted to do it as well, because we thought it would be a great preview of what was in store for the fans in Dallas-Fort Worth in terms of what CART was all about. We never got that done.

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