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 first divide on the topic of CART and TMS did not emerge between the series and track: an internal fight developed when CART’s competition department wanted to keep its high-tech, high-speed machines well clear of the oval.

Despite setting a fastest lap in the 221mph range – little more than 6mph faster than Ray’s recent IRL pole – there was no question whether the CART cars, in more representative track conditions, could lap at significantly faster average speeds. Weather records show a high of 46F in Dallas-Forth Worth during Brack’s December 19 test. The same records reveal CART’s opening day of practice at TMS on April 27 was almost double the number, reaching a peak of 81F.

CART’s board, comprised of team owners and executives, listened to the concerns of former Indy car racer Wally Dallenbach, its chief steward of more than 20 years who would groom the incoming Kneifel as his replacement in 2001. Dallenbach’s objections were overruled.

Robin Miller: I remember Wally saying, ‘I just don’t know that our cars can run here; I just think they’re going to go too fast.’ I remember that like it was yesterday.

Chris Kneifel: Fast-forward however many months later, now I’m chief steward of CART and I mean, I’m barely one month on the job, and I’ve never been to Texas Speedway before. After the Monterrey, Mexico race (on March 11), we went for a site visit, and I was there with Wally Dallenbach, [CART Logistics VP] Billy Kamphousen, [CART Director of Safety] Lon Bromley, and a few others. I remember going around and Eddie Gossage had all of the big blacked-out Suburbans touring the track, and the first thing that caught my eye was the vertical fence posts were outside the fence, which I thought it was wrong. They were on the track side. The posts were on the track side of the fence.

Kneifel’s concerns about the exposed steel poles atop the outer walls would soon prove to be well-founded, but his series wouldn’t bear the scars. During additional private tests conducted at TMS by CART teams prior to the race, and the running on Friday and Saturday at the event, drivers who crashed were fortunate to avoid climbing the walls and hitting them.

Chris Kneifel: I asked to stop the Suburban, I walked up the incredibly steep banking and I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe that this is the way it is. Obviously this isn’t going to change any time soon.’ I had some concerns just with the fence.

Just over one month later, those fears were validated at the Texas IRL race. Riding over the back of a car that blew its engine between Turns 1 and 2, Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Davey Hamilton’s Dallara-Oldsmobile struck a pole on the exit of Turn 2 while flying sideways, cleaving the front of the tub off near his knees. The Idahoan’s feet and bones in his lower extremities were pulverized.

Kneifel’s fears about the Texas fences were validated when Davey Hamilton suffered leg injuries in an IRL crash at the track shortly after CART’s initial inspection. Motorsport Images

Adding to Dallenbach’s protests, warnings from a few CART drivers who took part in the early 2001 tests were met with no intent to change the series’ plan to race at TMS. Average speeds crept to the 225-226mph range for some who tested using the performance specifications outlined by CART for the upcoming event. Along with Ford/Cosworth, Honda and Toyota poured untold millions into their 2.65-liter turbocharged V8 engine programs each season. Easily eclipsing anything the 700hp naturally-aspirated IRL V8 motors could make during that period, one of the CART engine builders estimates a safe 900hp being on tap for its drivers while spinning to peak RPMs of 15,800 at Texas.

CART’s chassis and aerodynamic formula offered further performance advantages, as the cars manufactured by Lola and Reynard made prodigious downforce even in oval trim. The series attempted to slow the cars by mandating the use of the Hanford Device, a vertical plate mounted to the back of the rear wings that acted like a small parachute for a leading car while opening a large hole in the air for trailing cars to zoom past on longer straights.

From Brack’s unrepresentative test in mismatched ambient conditions, to the ignoring of pleas from others who tested, went faster, and were convinced the ferocious speeds were not a good match for the track, to forming the event’s technical regulations without a wider sampling of cars and data, multiple warning signs were missed.

Chris Kneifel: We’re up in race control, and high atop in the ovals you’re typically perched above the grandstands and could see the full track. As the first practice started and cars were pulling out, I thought to myself, ‘Holy crap, it’s hard to watch these cars.’ You’re trying to follow one car and it’s hard to even focus just doing that. To think that they’re basically out there doing three laps in a minute is nuts in itself. We’re talking 22-23 second per lap. On a oval that’s 1.5 miles. So they’re covering almost 4.5 miles in a minute. Think about that one. The speeds are massively high, and they’re just getting faster and faster and faster.

Looking down on pit lane, Kneifel and the other members of race control began to see and hear the first evidence of a problem.

Chris Kneifel: We started hearing little dribbles of information coming over the radios from the pit lane about a driver got out of his car after a 10-lap run and lost his balance, seemed to not have his equilibrium. We saw things where drivers entered the pit lane and missed their pit box – disoriented enough that they didn’t see where they were supposed to turn into their pit box. And so it was mounting.

Mo Nunn Racing’s Tony Kanaan topped the session with a lap of 233.539mph. Although Ray’s IRL pole was set on his own, and the fastest CART drivers had the benefit of aerodynamic tows on that Friday morning, it was hard to ignore the 18.187mph difference.

As the first session came to an end, a series of bizarre episodes were witnessed as drivers began climbing from their cars. Forsythe Racing’s Patrick Carpentier, dealing with the flu, vomited on pit lane. In the moment, it was assumed his illness was the cause.

Oriol Servia: driver, Sigma Autosport: There was something, a force, a speed that I just could not get used to.

Nic Minassian: At first, it felt like what was happening was normal. I felt that physically, I couldn’t do it, rather than the car was too much for that track. Because I was a rookie, I felt like I was not able to say anything in the car because it wasn’t right for a rookie to say that he’s not able to do what he’s been told to do.

I remember feeling the force in the car. Your head was being pulled off and your mouth was deformed. It was really something else. Those cars were like monsters. Then there is this thing that you don’t usually have when you feel sick. But I wasn’t sick. It’s just the speed that made me sick, and that you cannot really control it. All you tell yourself is like, ‘Is it me? Is it normal?’ So you push yourself. You dig a bit deeper. You say, “OK, I’ve got to job to do. I’ve got to do it and I’m a rookie. If I don’t, I look stupid.’ That’s how silly it was in my head.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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