Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Too Fast to Race

Many of us look back at the late 1990s and early 2000s as the golden age of American open-wheel racing, and rightfully so. The era was one of fierce competition between two series vying for pre-eminence in American motorsport – CART, and the newly formed Indy Racing League, which had split from CART in the mid-90s in what was appropriately dubbed: The Split.

For perspective, in 2000 – the height of a cold war silently being contested between the two series, Gil de Ferran threw his Penske Racing Reynard 2ki around the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in only 30.225 seconds, setting a blistering lap pace of 241 mph – a record that stands to this day. Some accounts of the time reported that CART machines reached speeds in excess of 255 mph on the Auto Club backstretch, causing fencing in the infield to shake as the cars flew into Turn 3.

Coming to Texas Motor Speedway for the 2001 Firestone Firehawk 600, CART had high hopes after the IRL had put on a series of exciting races at the 1.5-mile facility just outside of Fort Worth. However, concerns were already being raised on Texas’ end about the suitability of the CART series’ machines on such a track.

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From the outset of the Friday practice sessions, skepticism about the coming race began to brew among drivers and officials alike. Tony Kanaan and Kenny Bräck led the two practice sessions, both running laps with top speeds eclipsing 230 mph.

By the end of Friday, Dr. Steve Olvey had observed multiple drivers presenting with visible dizziness as they exited their cars, and it quickly became clear that many drivers were feeling disoriented. Lapping the 1.5-mile track in only 22 seconds, at speeds in excess of 230 mph, drivers were experiencing around 5 lateral Gs (G-Force) for 14-18 seconds of each lap. For reference, a Soyuz capsule reentering the Earth’s atmosphere from space records around 4.5 Gs.

Take this qualifying lap from Adrian Fernandez as inspiration.

The first major incident of the weekend saw Mauricio Gugelmin crash heavily in practice. A snap of oversteer sent the Brazilian slamming into the wall exiting turn two. The impact registered over 110 Gs. Gugelmin’s foot was lodged between the car’s pedals by the force of the crash, leaving him with no capacity to brake or slow the car post-impact.

The car finally came to a rest in turn three, over a quarter of a mile from where the crash had started. Gugelmin opted to sit out the rest of the weekend, and retired at the end of the season, citing safety concerns.

By the end of Saturday, which hosted both practice and qualifying, the well known concerns about driver safety were widespread. Patrick Carpentier reported that after exiting his car, he found himself struggling to walk a straight line for five minutes. For good measure, the fastest speed of the day was posted by Paul Tracy – 236 mph.

A survey in a private driver’s meeting found that at least 20 of the 25 drivers present reported feeling vertigo-like symptoms while driving and after exiting their cars. Even more concerning, drivers widely reported that their symptoms and reflexive inhibitions were in full force after only ten laps.

Even if CART had been carrying absolutely no concern for driver safety, running the 248 lap race was not an option as nothing suggested the drivers would be able to stay conscious for that long.

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Dr. Olvey, along with other medical counsel, determined that the human body could not withstand conditions being produced by the cars for more than around seven minutes without losing consciousness. Furthermore, CART would have to slow the cars down to at least 225 mph to be anywhere close to safe for 248 laps.

As television coverage began on April 29, 2001, viewers were greeted by an empty Texas Motor Speedway. The stands were desolate, with no activity in the infield except the CART teams packing up and preparing to leave the facility. Two hours before the anticipated drop of the green flag, CART announced that because the cars could not be slowed, and could not be adjusted to race on the speedway’s infield layout, the event would be postponed to an undetermined date.

Ultimately, the event never got underway later in the year. This marked the first, and only time, a CART series race had ever been canceled for concerns of driver safety.

As for the IRL? Texas has remained on the schedule ever since 1996, and is will host the XPEL 375 on the 2023 calendar.

Meanwhile, CART suffered an abysmal 2001 season which saw both the Texas and Brazilian rounds of the series canceled, while Alex Zanardi suffered his infamous near-fatal crash at the Lausitzring in Germany. Negotiations fell through with organizers in Miami and Gateway, leading to the cancellation of both events.

The series’ first race at Rockingham in the United Kingdom also came very close to the chopping block, and CART’s sense of legitimacy took a fatal blow. With the IRL having raced at Texas for years at this point, CART’s refusal to go ahead with the race was hard to make sense of for many.

By the end of the 2001 season, the once-great series was well on its way to obscurity, and was eventually absorbed into the IRL in 2008 to complete the IndyCar reunification.

But… what if the race had gone ahead?

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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Cf

Auto club is 2 miles not 2.5.

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