Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: The invisible monster

Lesley Ann Miller/Motorsport Images

Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: The invisible monster

Insights & Analysis

Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: The invisible monster

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In Part 2 of RACER’s 3-part Inside CART’s 2001 Texas Debacle series, we pick up after the opening day of practice at Texas Motor Speedway concluded with Mauricio Gugelmin’s “three-quarter-miler” crash and drivers privately confiding within each other on the forces that were affecting their bodies [click here to read Part 1].

Down to 25 cars after Gugelmin’s withdrawal, activities resumed Saturday morning as teams went into the third and final practice to prepare for qualifying in the afternoon, and get in the last bits of running in race configuration to ready themselves for Sunday’s Firestone Firehawk 600.

Speeds continued to increase as Team Green’s Paul Tracy moved Friday’s best of 233.539mph to a new height of 236.678mph. It was nearly identical to the all-time qualifying record at the Indianapolis 500 of 236.986mph, set on the giant 2.5-mile oval where the long straights allow for more acceleration before reaching Turns 1 and 3.

By hitting the same 236mph average at TMS while missing a full mile of Indy’s length to rocket into the turns, Tracy reinforced just how much speed was being made in the four Texan corners.

Paul Tracy’s awesome practice lap matched the all-time Indy speed record on a considerably shorter track. Lesley Ann Miller/Motorsport Images

Scott Dixon: It was damn fast, man, like super-fast. Just feeling the compression in the banking and that you could go flat. The combined Gs made it crazy. It was a situation where before you got into the corner, you had to make sure that you took a breath before you got in there, because there was no breathing midway through.

But then also it’s the fact of how long the turn is. At Indy, it’s very short, quick, sharp turns. You don’t have to think about it for too long. But at Texas it’s long corners, and then going at those speeds, you don’t have a whole lot of time to really think about what’s coming next.

I do remember the feeling (of) just how intense the G loading was. But for me at that point, it kind of felt cool because it was the first time that we were going so hard like that, and I hadn’t really grown that part in your mind where you’re thinking, “****, I probably shouldn’t be doing this.”

For the third consecutive practice session, highlighted by Tracy’s unbelievable lap, the entire field took another step up in speed. For more than half the drivers, the third practice outing also came with a worsening of the problems inside the cockpit.

Nic Minassian: The whole lap was flat-out. I remember doing a long run to prepare for the race; I think I did 22 or 25 laps in a row. It was a long run to check the fuel consumption and the tire wear and all that. And I remember being in the car and passing the 15th, 16th lap, and starting to feel a little bit… you don’t feel right in the car. You feel a little bit dizzy.

I remember putting my right elbow in the side of the cockpit to hold the steering wheel because the steering was too heavy and my head was squashed on the side of the cockpit. I felt like, “Oh, gosh. That’s really rough.” So I was forcing myself in the car. “Carry on. Go on. Go, go. You don’t feel very well. Go. It’s OK. You carry on. You carry on.”

Eventually, I remember saying on the radio, “I don’t feel too good anymore. I’m going to pass out.” So I went to the pits and got out of the car. I couldn’t walk straight. I think it was Mike Hull, who was there at the time being the boss of my car, and my engineer, Bill Pappas.

And Bill tells me, “Oh, you did a good job.” And I was relieved a little bit because I felt like I was letting the team down, that physically, I couldn’t run the car as long as the others, but actually I did. I did run the car very long.

Minassian was fortunate to stop prior to da Matta’s crash in his Newman/Haas Racing Lola-Toyota. Unlike Gugelmin, “Shorty” was not injured. Considering the severe forces involved with the impacts, da Matta was lucky that his car suffered the brunt of the damage and dissipated enough energy to protect its pilot. A fresh Lola-Toyota was readied for da Matta to use in qualifying.

The crisis of confidence taking place inside Minassian likely prevented another Saturday morning crash.

Nic Minassian: I thought, “Look, I’m going to pass out so I better stop, because right now, I have forced my brain to push myself forward. Right now, I’m going to lose it. I’m going to end up squashed at 230 miles an hour in the wall.” And I just stopped. To be honest, I felt ashamed about it when I stopped.

I felt ashamed because I thought it was me. I thought I was weak. But then when I stopped and was so dizzy I couldn’t walk straight, I felt a bit better about what was happening to me.

The memory of this will stay with me forever. You felt like your face was being pulled out of your helmet in the corners. It’s like, “That’s mad!”

With three sessions completed and two enormous crashes to clean up, and despite being a day and a half into the event, one troubling item remained: CART had been kept in the dark by its drivers. Some officials like Kneifel had seen some strange things and gotten reports of woozy drivers, but up to that point, all of the frightening tales from inside the cars remained private.

Among the various characters to surface during the Texas CART ordeal, Newman/Haas Racing public relations ace Kathi Lauterbach took a brave step forward in the aftermath of da Matta’s crash. Her decision changed the event’s trajectory and likely spared a number of drivers from calamitous outcomes.

Kathi Lauterbach, here (middle) celebrating Graham Rahal’s victory at Fontana in 2015 with Team RLL, is a longtime staple of the IndyCar PR scene but all the drivers owe her a debt for her actions at TMS in 2001. Image courtesy of Kathi Lauterbach via Twitter

Dr. Steven Olvey, CART Medical Director, 1979-2003: Kathi came into our medical unit and she said, “I don’t know if I ought to tell you this, but I overheard that a couple of the drivers felt kind of crummy while they were driving. And to the point that they were lightheaded and just didn’t feel right and had some visual stuff happening.”

It’s just remarkable that she had the presence of mind to do that. Until Kathi walked into the medical unit, we didn’t have a clue.

Some accounts of the visit to Dr. Olvey suggest Lauterbach gained the information by eavesdropping. She provided clarification that the news came from feedback received directly from her Newman/Haas drivers da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi, and once more while holding a conversation with a team owner.

After the download from Lauterbach, Olvey’s first guess at the cause of the problems went in an interesting direction.

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