St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Drivers pushing speed to the limit

CART car runs of 240 mph cause dizziness and other physical problems.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


CART car runs of 240 mph cause dizziness and other physical problems.

CART's postponement of the Firestone Firehawk 600 at Texas Motor Speedway because drivers experienced vertigo and other problems related to excessive G forces raises an interesting question.

How much speed can a driver physically tolerate?

"I think maybe in this case, we came very close to what drivers can take," said Kenny Brack, who won the pole at Texas with a 233.447 mph lap but didn't experience any problems.

NHRA drag racers routinely exceed 300 mph. NASCAR driver Bill Elliott recorded the fastest lap in NASCAR history when he hit 212.809 mph during a qualifying session in 1987 at Talladega Superspeedway.

CART drivers were averaging 230-240 mph at Texas with 21 of 25 experiencing problems resulting in dizziness and tunnel vision.

"The forces that were put on your body when you went through a corner were just incredible," driver Michael Andretti said. "It was like all your organs were smooshing down in your body. It was just a real strain."

While CART cars reach similar speeds at California Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, those tracks are longer (2 miles) and aren't banked as steeply (14 and 18 degrees) as Texas' 24-degree turns.

Drivers were sustaining 4-6 Gs throughout each 22-second lap at Texas, well above what they normally feel anywhere else. G-forces are the forces of acceleration that pull on you when you change direction, for instance in a car, on a plane or on a roller coaster. Sitting in a chair or even moving at a steady pace and direction, one normally feels 1G, or one times the gravitational pull on body weight.

"You can go fast on the right race track safely," said Dr. Steve Olvey, CART director of medical affairs. "Texas is far more dangerous because you're throwing in this physical tolerance limit."

Drivers and series officials know the only solution is to slow the cars. That is easier said than done.

"Ever since I've been in his sport, it's been a game to try to slow these cars down," Andretti said. "But it's technology, and you're always up against technology. And as soon as you come up with a rule to slow them down, the engineers figure out a way to make them go quicker. It's something we're trying and striving to fix."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.