Classic Motorsport: The 2001 Firestone Firehawk 600k - When Racing Became Too Fast #BlogPost
CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was an Open Wheel Racing Series that had been a rival to the IRL (Indy Racing League) for the many years since IRL’s Tony George had separated from CART. CART had boasted that their cars, tracks, and drivers were much faster and that their races had much more excitement than IRL. This marketing trick worked, and CART was rivaling NASCAR in American Motorsport. CART, looking to expand further, added one of NASCAR’s tracks to the 2001 CART Schedule, Texas Motor Speedway. TMS is a 24 degree banked, 1.5 mile oval, similar to a lot of tracks on the NASCAR schedule. CART had never raced on a Quad-Oval designed race track like Texas, or its sister tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. CART saw this as a chance to expand and take NASCAR’s place as the most coveted racing series in North America. CART, however, had bitten off more than it could chew.
When the race was announced in Late 2000, many members of the media were concerned about the high-banked Oval track, and worried that the G-Forces that the drivers would have to withstand were too many for any human to experience. CART scheduled a test for December 18th, 2000 to show the media that CART could run a safe and exciting race at Texas. The test began on December 19th and Kenny Bräck would be the first driver to take to the track. Bräck ran over 100 laps during the test, the fastest being placed just over 221mph (356kph). The test seemed to satisfy CART and their Teams, but Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway President, urged CART to mandate several modifications to slow the cars down more, to satisfy the skeptical media. CART obliged and finalized the Texas rules package with lower manifold pressure and a Hansford Device on the wing.
Although no CART Official tests were held after the December test, a series of private tests were held between February 21st and February 24th. On the first day of testing, Patrick Racing driver Jimmy Vasser spent 100 Laps testing, with top speeds around 215mph (346kph) for the day. On the second day, Team KOOL Green tested with driver Dario Franchitti, and the results were much different. Franchitti’s top speed of the day was a remarkable 225.7mph (363.2kph). Team KOOL Green ran 190 laps that day before both Team KOOL Green and Patrick Racing packed up and headed home. Team Penske sent Hélio Castroneves out to finish the day, ending with a top lap speed of 226mph (364kph). The testing scheduled for February 23rd was canceled due to rain, and CART felt safe enough to keep the Texas date on the 2001 calendar.
The speed of the CART cars were staggering compared to what speeds NASCAR and IRL were running at Texas. NASCAR Winston Cup (Now Monster Energy Cup) cars were running around 192mph (309kph) qualifying speeds, while IRL cars were going around 216mph (348kph). CART could still boast it had the fastest closed course racing series in the world, but it soon proved dangerous.
On April 27th, 2001, race weekend officially started in Texas with Friday Morning practice.During this session, speeds became dangerously high, with Tony Kanaan running the fastest lap of the session at 233.539mph (375.845kph). The practice saw no accidents however, but the same could not be said for the afternoon session.
Early in the afternoon session, CART Veteran Maurício Gugelmin lost control of his car in Turn 1 and hit the wall in Turn 2 with a force of 66.2G’s. Gugelmin’s foot became lodged between the gas and brake with the hit, and the car accelerated. It slid down the backstretch and hit the Turn 3 wall with a force of 113.1G’s. The car slid down to the inside wall before it came to a halt, a quarter of a mile after the accident started. Gugelmin blacked out during the accident but was not majorly injured. He was, however, scared for his life, and chose to sit out qualifying and eventually left the track the night before the race. The rest of the Friday practice went without incident, but the speed was incredible. Kenny Bräck set the fastest lap and trap speeds of the day, with an average lap at 233.785 mph (376.240kph) and ran through the speed trap at the start/finish line at 238.936 mph (384.530kph). Many drivers like Paul Tracey, Hélio Castroneves and Bryan Herta had claimed that Texas was the fastest track they had ever driven on. The speed however, soon pressed concerns.
Early Friday evening, rumors started coming out that a couple of CART’s top drivers had been to the infield care center for experiencing dizziness and feeling like they could not control their cars after a few laps. The two drivers in question were later announced by Dr. Steve Olvey, Director of CART Medical Affairs, as Tony Kanaan and Alex Zanardi. After these rumors were confirmed by the drivers, Adrian Fernandez stepped forward and told the media he had been experiencing the same symptoms. Olvey told the media that he had never seen this condition in racing drivers before. Although CART acknowledged these concerns, they would not reschedule Saturday and Sunday events for the weekend.
Saturday, April 28th, 2001, saw the fastest speeds that Texas Motor Speedway had ever seen. During morning practice, Paul Tracey put down a lap of 236.678mph (380.896kph). It still stands as the all-time record for a lap of any sort at Texas Motor Speedway. Soon after, the practice was halted, and the cars were brought down pit lane. All attention was focused in Turn 3 as Cristiano da Matta had crashed. Matta had crashed in Turn 2 and slid all the way into Turn 3. Cristiano was able to get out of the car on his own power and was remarkably uninjured after the accident. Qualifying and the race were still on schedule for the weekend even after these speeds surfaced.
Qualifying was run without incident, and Kenny Bräck won the pole position with a lap speed of 233.447mph (375.697kph). 24 out of the 25 cars entered in qualifying ran over 226mph (364kph). During qualifying, teams alerted CART about shocking data numbers. Drivers were experiencing at least 5G for 18 seconds per 23 second lap of the track. To put that in perspective, NASA astronauts experience only 4G during liftoff.
After Qualifying, drivers concerns were raised, and the race even occurring was in question. Patrick Carpentier went to the medical facility to have his wrist checked. He had suffered an accident at Long Beach and was worried about the G-Forces his wrist was being put through. When asked why he was concerned about his G-Load, he told doctors that he was not able to walk straight for 4 minutes after getting out of his car. CART then organized a private drivers meeting away from the media, and asked drivers if they had experienced these symptoms. 21 out of the 25 drivers in the meeting admitted they had experienced this. Most claimed they had experienced disorientation, inner ear, and vision problems after 10 Laps on track. At least half of the drivers claimed that after 10 Laps they had no peripheral vision and reaction time was increased by up to a full second. Soon after the end of this meeting, Dr. Olvey contacted Dr. Richard Jennings at the University of Texas. Dr. Jennings told him that these conditions are only experienced if the human body experiences over 5.5G’s of force. Jennings also told Olvey that the human body cannot withstand these forces for more than 7 Minutes at a time without losing consciousness and that the race could not be safely run at more than 225mph (362kph). That night, CART officials shut there doors and tried to devise a plan.
On Sunday, April 29th, 2001, ESPN’s Television coverage of the Firestone 600k started with its familiar theme song and intro. The intro faded away to reveal a desolate Texas Motor Speedway. There was not the roar of 100,000 fans, nor the candy colored race cars lined up and down pit lane. There was silence, and a line of 25 haulers headed out through the track’s infield tunnel. Through Saturday night and Sunday morning, CART had teams take downforce out of the cars to slow corner speeds, but engineers found it would make the car too unstable. CART asked the teams to reduce horsepower, but it would make the engines too unstable and unreliable. Early Sunday morning, CART proposed the race be run on the Infield Road Course, Texas Motor Speedway was ready to make the adjustments, teams however were not. The difference in downforce between the CART Oval Aerodynamic Rules and the Road Racing Rules was too great, and it would require all new cars. The morning warm up session was canceled to give officials more time to devise a plan, but time ran out.
Two hours before the scheduled start time, CART told their teams, the expected 100,000 strong crowd, and the CART officials to pack up, and go home. That morning, drivers, owners and sponsors agreed that race race would be too dangerous to run. The risk was too great and the reward too little. CART stated the symptoms would have had an increased effect on the drivers due to the unseasonably warm 80 degree weather expected that day, and that drivers would have experienced “Gray-Outs” due to the G-Forces, or total loss of vision and eventually consciousness due to the G’s. Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage was highly critical of CART’s decision and told media that CART had told him that the race would be run, even before the additional February test sessions. Highly recognized Motorsports Journalist Robin Miller later said that CART should have figured out a solution as soon as the first 230mph lap was run. CART tried to figure out a date to run the race, but it never came to be.
On May 8th, 2001, Texas Motor Speedway owner Speedway Incorporated sued CART for breach of contract. It cited that CART should have to pay the refunds for the tickets, race purse compensation, $2 Million sanctioning fee and promotional expenses. On October 16th, the suit was settled for between
5-7 Million dollars. The contract with Texas Motor Speedway for events in 2002 and 2003 was nullified.
Fan reaction was mixed. Many were angry CART did not conduct additional tests at the track, while others were satisfied CART did not put its drivers in danger. After this incident, CART was viewed by many as a slumping series. In the months and years to come, NASCAR and IRL both thrived, and CART struggled. In 2003, CART declared bankruptcy and was sold, becoming Champ Car until 2008, when the IRL and Champ Car merged, creating what is now known as IndyCar.
So that’s the story of how one of the most promising series in all of Motorsport was reduced to having to merge with its rival in a matter of 7 years. IRL thrived off this event, taking the title as the most watched American-Open Wheel Racing Series by the end of 2001. NASCAR also thrived, expanding to two dates at Texas Motor Speedway by 2005. Many of the former CART drivers have either retired or run in the IndyCar Series now.
Watch ESPN’s 30 Minute Broadcast from that day here:
After the support of Wednesday’s 2002 Daytona 500 Article, I’ve decided to stockpile up on some on these articles while I’m in the spirit. Expect more articles on Wednesday’s and Fridays for at least the next 2 weeks. Vote in the poll below for which one you would like to see! #HelpJackThroughTheOffseason #MakeCarThrottleCarsAgain