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CART proves again that safety comes first

Calling off Texas race is more proof of the organization's commitment.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


One must imagine what it was like to be Michael Andretti as he lay awake last Saturday night.

"Should I get in the car?" he wondered. "Is it being responsible for my wife and kids?"

Twenty other men, who live to speed and forget fear on a weekly basis, pondered similar issues before the sun rose on CART's first race day at Texas Motor Speedway.

"It was just the worst thing to agonize over," said Andretti, a 40-time winner in 18 seasons as a CART driver.

All but four drivers had admitted the previous afternoon of experiencing vertigo and dizziness because of the jet-fast speeds they were reaching on the highly-banked track.

"We found an area that was too fast for the physical element," Andretti said.

Convinced it was the only move, CART chief executive officer Joseph Heitzler called off the race two hours before the scheduled green flag.

The action further cemented CART's reputation as one of the most safety-conscious racing organizations in the world.

"I can tell you one thing, that makes you feel very good because that was a very difficult situation," Andretti said. "And if I was told to go racing, I was going to go racing.

"It would have been a very, very difficult situation, and I thank CART for what they did so we didn't have to go through that."

Cars were nearing 240 mph on the 1.5-mile track, which is banked at 24 degrees in the corners, and the drivers' bodies couldn't cope with laps averaging 5 Gs, about two more than normal. A fighter pilot may experience 4 Gs.

Extreme G-forces affect the inner ear, causing dizziness or lightheadedness to the point of disorientation. The blood supply to the brain also is affected and can cause tunnel vision and eventually a unconsciousness.

"What happened is that the G forces from that combination created a G load that is above the human tolerance level unless you have a G-suit on such as what a fighter pilot would wear," said Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's director of medical affairs. "I applaud CART for being able to stand up and do what was right for the drivers. It was in the best interest of not only the drivers but of the spectators. I applaud CART and I have always appreciated the fact that in CART, safety from Day 1 has always been a priority issue."

Four NASCAR (Dale Earnhardt, Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty) and two CART drivers (Greg Moore and Gonzalo Rodriguez) had died since 1999 and CART officials weren't about to let the total climb for the sake of the show.

Drivers agreed with the decision.

"You can't go racing thinking you might pass out or black out and the guy running next to you at 240 mph might pass out," driver Bryan Herta said. "In a place like that, you're probably not going to wake up."

Though the move wasn't unprecedented in motorsports -- CART drivers refused to race in 1985 at Michigan and NASCAR drivers boycotted in 1969 at Talladega -- it was a bold and significant statement about the importance of driver safety to CART.

The series already has a full-time medical staff, a full-time rescue crew and mandates use of the HANS (head and neck support) on all oval tracks.

NASCAR has or does none of the above. Indy Racing has a traveling medical staff and rescue crew, but does not require the HANS.

"I don't like to compare different sports," said Mauricio Gugelmin, president of the Championship Driver's Association, "but in this case I think there is no comparison."

Postponing the race hasn't come without consequence.

There was the argument from track officials and fans that CART should've known the problem might occur, that it had months to test the track with its turbocharged cars.

Discussions about rescheduling the event are ongoing. But Texas Motor Speedway is booked for most of the year except for a three-month period it will be closed for repairs.

"It is a bad situation," Andretti said. "We apologize to the fans and all that, but the potential of losing the life of a driver is definitely not worth the risk of going on with the show at this time."

For information about CART, check out these Web sites:

www.cart.com

rpm.espn.go.com/rpm/index

www.howstuffworks.com/champ-car.htm

www.what-drives-you.com/home.html

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