IMS and IndyCar owner joins insider Nathan Brown on a special edition of Pit Pass Live. Indianapolis Star
Eddie Gossage knows history isn’t about to repeat itself on Saturday. The IndyCar regime is too buttoned-up for that. There's too buttoned-up an IndyCar regime for that. But sometimes, it pays to relive the past, even if doing so brings on a nervous chuckle.
“You probably heard me, that laugh. I don’t think about it often,” he said this week, before prying open old wounds left by the failed circus act of a racing weekend his Texas Motor Speedway nearly played host to 19 years ago.
As TMS opens its gates for the series’ 2020 season-opener, which Gossage has called “one of the most important races in the history of IndyCar,” it amazes him just how easily he can recall the brow-bending frustration of a weekend in late-April of 2001 that, one could argue, should have been held in the same regard.
In the middle of the War of the Split, CART was invading what had been, since 1997, IRL country. It was, perhaps, a last-ditch effort to prove that the series with the stronger field could not only play the speedway game, but do it better.
Picture the Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Gatorade commercial. 'Anything you can do, I can do better.'
“And they wound up laying a goose egg that brought about the end of that series,” Gossage said. “100% of that fiasco was on the hands of CART.”
As cars return, almost desperately, to the 1.5-mile oval just outside Fort Worth on Saturday with the open-wheel series in need of a serious boost, this is the story of how another such instance went horribly wrong – a lesson that still sticks with some of today’s players.
'Like a video game at high speed'
Two years prior, Mike Zizzo saw the lives of two CART drivers lost to the unpredictable tragedies of auto-racing in less than two months. And this, this race had all the makings to lead to a third, or even fourth death, he told himself as he watched near-speechless Friday afternoon from the media box at TMS. Working then as the head of communications for CART in his sixth year with the series, he found himself more trained than he ever thought he’d be to spot catastrophe before it erupted.
Though he didn’t yet know there would be no race held that weekend, to the disappointment of 60,000 fans and most – but not all – the series drivers, he realized during practice that something didn’t look, sound or feel right.
“I remember just watching them from high above – and I was with the series when Mauricio Gugelmin ran 240 (mph) at California Speedway, so it wasn’t the speeds that caught my eye,” Zizzo told IndyStar earlier this spring. “But for some reason, that day looking down on the that track, it just seemed so abnormal, just abnormally fast. It was just very hard to explain, just looking at how quick they were going, you couldn’t tell which car was which.”
“It looked like a video game at high speed.”
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Zizzo was far from alone in his surprise that weekend, but to the people in charge, it was by design. Even if the consequences weren’t.
Since Gossage had signed the three-year deal with CART late the previous year, the track president had been urging its management, from interim president and CEO Bobby Rahal – who left at the end of 2000 to take over the Jaguar Racing Formula 1 team – to his replacement Joseph Heitzler and series chairman James Hardymon, to take a serious look at the series’ cars to make sure they were prepped to run safely and competitively.
Despite his insistence, Gossage said, it was always hard to stay on-topic.
“I have letter after letter from me to CART – I’ve still got copies – that I sent to them, encouraging them to test, asking them to look at specific parts and pieces,” Gossage said. “I promise you, in the first story after the announcement about the deal, I was talking about needing to slow the cars.
“And we know, as late as four or five days before the race, I’ve got emails from their engine manufacturers saying they hadn’t been able to find more horsepower. They weren’t doing what they promised to do, which was to slow the cars down.”
Gossage's pleas were met with straw man arguments, ranging from issues about the lack of a pit wall to separate the front straight and pit road to pleadings to tear down the light poles “because, they said ‘Well, if a car got over the wall, it would hit the lights and impose a big danger,' ” Gossage said.
Meanwhile, the track president was trying to make sure no cars were so out-of-control they might jump the fence to begin with.
And in those days, Zizzo and drivers explain, full-paddock open tests were much more rare than today – even with a brand-new track on the schedule.
Instead, it happened in sequences, with Team Rahal’s Kenny Brack the first to hop in the car in December 2000, having raced the on the track five times from 1997-99 in the somewhat slower IRL cars. For perspective, Tony Stewart had qualified on pole for the first of two IRL races at Texas in 1998 at 224.448 mph.
That day, Brack topped out just over 221 mph. In February, Dario Franchitti would record a fast lap of just over 225 mph during his own session, and team and series officials came away satisfied with the data they had it mined leading into what was supposed to be the third race of the year.
“There was no sign of anything. The biggest thing I remember was the track was a little bumpy,” Franchitti said this spring.
They might as well have not even run. Two months later,it was as ifthe drivers were in a whole new car.
“New season, new tires and engines and such, the performance level is going to be much higher, and with the guys driving the car, when you’re testing for a day, you’re going to push it, but probably not push it to the limit,” Zizzo said. “But when you start looking at the numbers of those lap speeds that first day in practice, it was dramatic.”
'Like sprinting in your living room'
But the numbers don’t tell the full story. By that point in open-wheel oval racing, 240-plus was no longer foreign territory, so on the surface, speeds in the low 230s wouldn’t sound alarming initially.
It wasn't the speed or the lap times, but what they were doing to some of the fittest bodies in professional sports.
Tony Kanaan topped the Friday morning practice leaderboard with a single-lap speed of 233.539 mph in 22.845 seconds – a full second quicker than anyone had reported during testing.
On a racetrack, a second is a lifetime. To say a race-winner held a one-second lead as his car crossed the finish line is one way to describe a relatively comfortable victory.
After one session, Kanaan stepped out of the car and thought he had the flu.
“It was so weird. I started to feel extremely dizzy in the car,” he said. “And I’m like ‘Dude, should I tell the doctors, or is it just me?’ I didn’t want to miss the race.
“I went to (Dr. Terry Trammell, then the CART director of medical services) and said ‘Terry, I don’t think I feel good.’ And in the next 15 minutes, five more guys walked in.”
For Franchitti, it wasn’t as much the physical toll his body was taking, but the mental – very unusual for the future three-time Indy 500 winner.
“I had the feeling of not being in control of the car, like a case of guiding the car around, but I knew if the car stepped out or anything like that, I was just going to be a passenger,” he said. “I did a long run and was going into the pit box and completely missed it and just drove straight by. My peripheral vision had started to just go away, and that was the first sign that, maybe, something was wrong.
“At IMS, it feels quick going 230-plus, but you’ve got very long straights, and you aren’t ever pulling a massive G force load. But at Texas, on a mile-and-a-half, banked, with no real straights to speak of, things are happening so much quicker. IMS is like sprinting as fast as you can on a running track, and at Texas, it felt like you were doing it in your living room, and I was just dreading that race. It wasn’t any fun to drive the car around there.”
Zizzo remembers being told by CART’s other medical director, Dr. Steve Olvey, that, of the roughly 22-second laps most of the field was turning in practice, “18 of those seconds were sustained Gs. That was just unheard of,” Zizzo said. “That’s where we started to have issues with dizziness and guys temporarily blacking out, guys feeling like they had a huge weight on their chest the entire lap.
“I remember one driver, his team called in for him to pit, and he said ‘I can’t. I don’t know if I’m on the front stretch or the back stretch.”
Later that afternoon, Brack topped the leaderboard with a lap of 233.785 mph, serving as the backdrop to Gugelmin’s gruesome-looking crash, where his car got loose exiting Turn 2, hit the inside wall with a reported 66 Gs and continued to slide down the track into the apex between Turns 3 and 4 – nearly a mile away from where the incident began. He would manage to walk away with bad bruises.
But it wasn’t nearly enough to persuade series officials – or even all of its drivers – that they were darting down a dangerous path.
A driver meeting face-off
“I remember it clearly. It was fast, but it was a blast,” Max Papis said.
The brash, opinionated Italian speedster remembers that weekend 19 years ago clearly. As a three-time open-wheel race winner, Papis went to bed Saturday night before the race with the steadfast belief he had an upper hand before the green flag dropped.
Papis prided himself on world-class fitness, and to him, the complaints he’d heard in a drivers meeting with series medical officials meant his opponents were starting to crack.
“After qualifying, I was trying to make the car even faster,” he said, after finishing the Saturday morning practice session with the third-fastest lap at more than 236 mph, but then qualifying 17th (230.204 mph). “My focus wasn’t ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so fast.’ It was ‘I’m not fast enough.’ ”
“I do remember going on a long run, and when I stepped out of the car, my head was kinda spinning, but I had that at Nazareth before when you don’t run an oval every weekend and your body takes time to adjust.
“Before I went to sleep, I was thinking ‘This is awesome. All the work you’re putting in is paying off, and tomorrow, all those guys will fall off their seat. They’ll have to slow down, cause they can’t hold on 'cause they’re not trained enough.”
Pole-sitter Brack (233.447 mph) was in lock-step.
“At the time, I thought ‘We all decide how fast we can run. We all have a throttle pedal’, but I guess that, maybe in retrospect, you might say that’s not something you should lean on too much,” he said.
Earlier that evening, in the drivers meeting, veterans Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi took a chance, the way some see it, and spoke up. Two of the ironmen of the sport at the time, they admitted in the open forum that they had unusual symptoms after practicing. As Zizzo remembers, “They said ‘If we’re going to race, we’ll race’ but I think after those two spoke up, you started to see more and more guys nod in agreement.”
Kanaan and Helio Castroneves, then two of the younger drivers in the field, said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable speaking up if not for the two vets.
As it stood, Paul Tracy and Brack were the two staunch proponents of moving forward with the race the next day. They were clearly out-numbered, yet the medical team, CART officials and team owners went to work into the early morning to try to craft a solution.
But how do you make 8 to 10 mph just disappear with drivers who aren’t going to ease off the gas if you ask them to? In fact, that may have been the most sensible idea to come up.
As Zizzo explains, ideas ranged from lowering the boost on the engines – a fix that would knock off only 3-4 mph before you’d risk blowing the engines – to utilizing the infield road course setup that would still need to be tested, and even creating a chicane on the backstretch with a series of cones.
“Personally, I was very concerned with losing a driver if we raced that weekend, and I thought we’d never recover if we did,” Zizzo said. “When you’re aware of the info we’re getting from Dr. Olvey, that would be something very hard to live with.”
'I was relieved'
And so they didn’t run, but CART officials took it right down to the wire.
Despite canceling a morning practice run as a precaution and with the decision nearly solidified, CART didn’t announce the cancellation of the race until two hours before the planned drivers’ command. Tens of thousands of fans had already filed into their seats, and without social media back in those days, it took a while for the news to trickle around the track.
“We tried to get the word out to the local media and local radio and TV and such,” Zizzo said.
Sitting in his office, seething, Gossage got the news while watching ESPN. As CART corralled Andretti into a news conference, the track president balked at the idea that he would be coaxed into sitting alongside the officials he believed were the culprits of the colossal failure.
“I said ‘No, we’ll have our own remarks and answer questions, but we’re not playing a role in announcing that this race has been canceled, cause we didn’t have anything to do with it’,” he said.
Angry fans crafted makeshift signs and rained down garbage toward the track in frustration. Back in the motor真人百家家乐官网网站homes, offices and garage bays, emotions ranged from disbelief to something far different.
“I was relieved. I was relieved to not have to race,” Franchitti said. “I was looking in the stands, and I thought ‘Oof, this isn’t good’, but I was relieved I didn’t have to drive, and I got to hop on a plane and go 真人百家家乐官网网站home.
“The only other time I’d hoped for that was 真人百家家乐官网网站homestead in 2000, my first time back in the car since a near-fatal accident that spring, and the race at Las Vegas in 2011.”
There, Franchitti’s dear friend and competitor Dan Wheldon lost his life 11 laps into a race where paddock members had feared before the race about the high-speed pack racing.
'A black eye for CART'
Though he was getting all this information second-hand while overseas, Rahal understood immediately the black cloud CART would soon fall under. Though the series lived as a direct competitor to the IRL for three more years, its life began to quickly drift away. Later that year, the IRL was forced to delay its season-finale set for TMS due to 9/11, terror attacks, but then held what turned into a patriotic party mixed in with an auto race that wiped any residue of CART clear of the track.
Months later, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske both shifted their programs full-time to the IRL.
“It probably made the CART guys look a little silly in the minds of many,” Rahal said. “Given the fact that others were doing the same kind of racing on other tracks that felt just as fast as Texas.
“And I think it probably created some bad blood between TMS and the CART folks.”
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But that’s not to say the marriage between Gossage and what’s now IndyCar has been blissful ever since. Though he declined to delve into details, he describes multiple nights after IndyCar races he’s hosted over the past decade-plus where he’s found himself driving 真人百家家乐官网网站home with his wife, muttering, “They’re never running here again, I’ll make sure of that. We’re done with them’ because of the people in charge.
“But the quality of the races has been spectacular.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.