Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: Silent running

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: Silent running

Insights & Analysis

Inside CART’s 2001 Texas debacle: Silent running


In the conclusion of RACER’s 3-part Inside CART’s 2001 Texas Debacle series, we rejoin just after the drivers’ G-related secret was revealed to CART’s doctor, and the panic button’s been hit after confirming the cars were too fast for the human mind and body to endure Texas Motor Speedway in their existing technical specification.

The Firestone Firehawk 600 was grinding to a halt as Saturday afternoon transitioned to dusk. The fans who’d just watched qualifying take place didn’t know, and most of the assembled media were unaware. But behind the scenes, in various tents and conference rooms, track and series officials, engine manufacturers, and teams were buckling in for a late night of constant meetings, brainstorming sessions, and something approximating a mass intervention with the 25 remaining drivers.

Dr. Steven Olvey, CART medical director: We had a meeting and I had to lead it, so I took all 25 drivers and said, “How many of you have had these issues with balance, coordination — you get out of the car and you feel like you ought not to walk and have to sit down for a while?” Nobody said anything for about two or three minutes.

Chris Kneifel, CART chief steward: In terms of drivers, paid drivers, it was really different in those days than it is now. There were a lot of guys making millions, well into the seven figures, a lot of them every year. Five to seven million dollars. And they weren’t going to upset the apple cart unless they were told to.

Dr. Steven Olvey: And then, the first one raised his hand, and then somebody else agreed, and then I think it was Helio Castroneves who said, “Yeah, I had that.” And pretty soon, pretty much all admitted to having weird symptoms.

Team Penske’s Castroneves, here leading Cristiano da Matta’s Newman-Haas Lola, was among those who felt the need to speak up. Motorsport Images

Helio Castroneves: So I remember going to the hotel on that Friday, having dinner, and drinking a lot of water. I was so thirsty. The next day, there was the big drivers meeting and Dr. Olvey was like, “Did you guys feel dizzy?” And I’m thinking like, “Oh, I felt that,” but I didn’t raise my hand. I was kind of quiet. And he was like, “Are any of you guys thirsty? Have blackouts, and symptoms like that?” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t have a blackout, but man, I was really thirsty.”

And I was like, “Should I tell him I felt that? Should I raise my hand?” I didn’t know what to say. I was thinking like, “Well, if you feel those things, you should.” But I didn’t want to be the first, and then I see a lot of experienced drivers start raising their hands. Like, more than half. I was like, “You know what, I felt that. I’m not going to lie. I felt that.”

As the outpouring of affirmations came in, Dr. Olvey and his friend Dr. Richard Jennings, the NASA flight specialist, were stunned to learn one driver experienced a phenomenon known as G-LOC, the ‘G-force Induced Loss of Consciousness’ while hurtling between Turns 2 and 3 at unabated speed.

If a single miracle was visited upon the Texas event, this was it.

Dr. Steven Olvey: One guy actually had G-LOC. He was unconscious from the entire second turn through the third turn before he came back to consciousness. And the only way he got there without crashing was just muscle memory, basically.

Helio Castroneves: That’s when they started to explain about astronauts. They said that if they go to like 4.7 or 5.3 Gs or something like that for 30 seconds, they black out. So, our situation was a little different from going into space, but we were going 30 minutes at 4.5 Gs, 5 Gs. And that’s where we’re like, this is serious. There was no way to avoid it.

Mike Zizzo: CART VP of Communications 1996-2002, Texas Motor Speedway VP of Communications 2005-2019: To hear drivers that are fearless starting to raise concerns… The one who hit me the most was Alex Zanardi. Alex would race anything, anywhere, at any speed. He felt sorry for some of the younger drivers because he knew they had to drive. They didn’t have the clout to say no to their team owners, and there were some owners who I won’t name, because some are there still today, but they all weren’t supportive of stopping.

And Alex said, “I have a choice. I don’t have to drive if I don’t want to.” But he said, “I’m going to do what everyone else is going to do.” Then PT (Paul Tracy) was probably the most outspoken about the other side of the equation about we need to race regardless.

Kenny Brack: I think Paul and I were the most vocal in the drivers meeting to get on with it. But, of course, it’s easy to say that when you didn’t experience this G-force problem yourself.

Mike Zizzo: It got very interesting in the drivers meeting. But it wasn’t a unanimous, “We’re not going to race.”

Although there were a few holdouts among the drivers, the conversations were described as mostly civil and productive. The same could not be said when their bosses and figureheads from the series, track, and engine manufacturers got together behind closed doors.