A Short, Colorful Past In Texas
For a track that has been in existence for only twelve years, Texas Motor Speedway certainly has a colorful past and open-wheel racing has played a major role since the beginning. Patterned after what was then Charlotte Motor Speedway and the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway, which were other successful tracks in the portfolio of Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI); Texas Motor Speedway opened in 1997, near Ft. Worth.
The original construction was a little unusual in that it had dual banking, which sounded good in theory but didn’t translate well into reality. The idea was that the inner portions of the turn would have only eight degrees of banking for open-wheel cars, while the outside section were banked twenty-four degrees for stock cars. The results were not pretty as this proved to upset the balance of the heavier stock cars and also tended to create a single-groove racetrack for the IndyCars.
After the track debuted with a NASCAR weekend in April of 1997, the IRL staged the first-ever night race for modern IndyCar’s on June 7, 1997. The racing was decent enough but the event is best known for a scoring error, which mistakenly declared AJ Foyt’s driver, Billy Boat the winner. As Boat and Foyt were celebrating in victory lane, the rightful winner — Arie Luyendyk, was heard yelling from the sidelines that he was the winner and not Boat. Big mistake.
Foyt wasted little time dispatching the “Flying Dutchman” by summarily backhanding Luyendyk in the ear from behind, and causing the Dutchman to fly into some nearby shrubbery. Foyt ran over to hand-deliver blow number two, when officials intervened. By the next morning, the mistake had been found and Luyendyk was declared the eventual winner. To this day, Foyt still holds the winning trophy.
By 1998, the dual banking had been done away with. The result for the IndyCars was a multi-groove racetrack that produced incredibly fast, side-by side racing. From 1998 through 2004, the IndyCars ran twice a year at Texas. The summer race was run at night and for several years was the race that followed the Indianapolis 500 until 2006. The second race was run in the fall during the day. From 1999 until 2004, it was always the season finale. When the track got a second NASCAR Cup date, the fall race was done away with.
Some of the most memorable races in the short history of the IRL were run at this track. Gil de Ferran ran and won his final open-wheel race at Texas. Several of the closest 1-2-3 finishes in all of motorsports took place at IndyCar races at TMS. IndyCar race winners at Texas include Tony Kanaan, Kenny Bräck, Al Unser, Jr. Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., Tomas Scheckter and Scott Dixon. Championships were won and lost in the literal blink of an eye at Texas Motor Speedway. It was also the scene of two of the most dramatic crashes that almost took the careers and even lives of drivers Davey Hamilton (2001) and Kenny Bräck (2003). Fortunately both drivers would eventually drive again.
Texas Motor Speedway is also the site of the most infamous non-race in auto-racing history. In 2001, CART decided that if the IRL could put on a great show at TMS, then CART’s faster cars would be even better. Depending on what you hear, some put the blame on Bobby Rahal who was CART’s interim CEO in 2000, while others squarely put the blame on Joe Heitzler who succeeded Rahal as CART’s permanent CEO in Dec 2000.
Rahal tested his driver Kenny Bräck for CART at Texas on a bitter cold day during the off-season to determine the safety of the track for the faster Champ Cars. There had been some concerns by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach that the tight confines and high banking may be too much for their cars. For whatever reason, Bräck supposedly only reached a top speed of 206 during the test. The track was then deemed race-worthy. Heitzler quickly decided to move ahead with race plans.
When the teams returned in April for race weekend, it was another story. There were signs of trouble almost immediately. Paul Tracy quickly turned a lap at over 236 mph – an unheard of speed on a mile and a half oval. Cristiano da Matta and Mauricio Gugelmin had separate practice crashes where their cars were running perfectly normal lines, when both cars seemingly snapped into the outside wall. Further inspection revealed no apparent causes. Then, Patrick Carpentier complained when he got out of the car that he could not even stand up due to dizziness and severe vertigo. One by one, other drivers started complaining of disorientation, nausea and vertigo. Some even mentioned having brief blackout periods. No more than fifteen laps could be run without the symptoms appearing.
The problem was a phenomenon called “G-Loc” which normally exists only with fighter pilots. It occurs with excessive vertical G-forces combined with excessive lateral G-force loading. This had never been seen before in motor racing. The IRL had never exceeded 225 mph at Texas. The Champ cars had exceeded that by eleven mph. That difference was enough to change everything. The vertical G-Forces caused by the high-banked turns were sometimes exceeding 5.0 G’s, coupled with 3.5 to 4.0 lateral G-forces in the turns. CART was faced with a dilemma – a race that after thirty laps would have drivers blacking out while doing over 230 mph. This wasn’t good.
With egg all over their faces, Joe Heitzler and the other CART executives made the call to cancel the race on race morning, within just a few hours of the drop of the green flag. In hindsight, that single moment at Texas Motor Speedway in April of 2001 was the beginning of the end for CART. There were other mishaps over the next couple of years that spelled doom for the once-strong series, but in the court of public opinion, that was the genesis of CART’s demise.
If Texas Motor speedway played a role in CART’s demise, it has served as a needed boost for the IRL. TMS generally draws eighty to ninety thousand for this race, easily the biggest IndyCar crowd outside of Indianapolis. The racing can be so exciting it is sometimes exhausting to watch. But as good as Texas Motor Speedway has been to the IRL, the IndyCars have been just as good to TMS. This was not a popular track among NASCAR teams when it first opened. They only had one date and the racing was boring. The IndyCars came twice a year and the racing was breathtaking. Now that NASCAR shows up twice a year, the tables have turned. But track President Eddie Gossage knows what the IndyCars meant to his track in the early days and still realizes that the IRL is a moneymaker for his track.
The races at Texas have been described as a swarm of bees flying around the track. There have been nineteen IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway and thirteen have been settled by less than one second at the finish. The last couple of years have not produced the level of racing we have come to expect. Some say it is the tire compound that is used there. Others say that the new aero package no longer allows cars to run close to each other. Based on the practice this past Thursday night, it looks like we might be in for some of the earlier style of Texas racing we’ve grown accustomed to. Here’s hoping for a safe and exciting race tonight.