Originally created 05/03/01

CART drivers put their safety before money



ATLANTA - Drivers from Championship Auto Racing Teams did more than walk out on the Firestone Firehawk 600 on Sunday. They took responsibility for their safety.

They refused to be swayed by understandably confused, yet unsympathetic fans. They refused to yield to a speedway's hard work and honorable intentions. They refused to blindly follow sponsorship dollars like octane-drunk serfs.

The inaugural CART race at the Texas Motor Speedway became a debacle when the raceway and race rules became a dangerous combination. The sanctioning body had months to learn the 24-degree banking at the monstrous facility would create G-forces that would push the drivers well beyond their limits.

Drivers complained of dizziness and nausea after just a handful of laps. The G-forces were estimated as high as five in the banking; the highest drivers generally have to endure is three.

Texas Motor Speedway certainly couldn't change quick enough to solve the problem, and it wasn't feasible to think CART teams would throw out a mechanical anchor to reduce speeds by 10 mph.

So the drivers took charge.

"The forces were squeezing our brains into our bones," said former two-time champion Alex Zanardi.

Safety has been a paramount concern for a year on every racing circuit. The death of four NASCAR drivers, including seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, has forced drivers in every racing series to think about their mortality. Because common sense won't be mandated by the sanctioning body, it's up to the drivers to take care of themselves.

NASCAR's rules at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway had NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers openly talking of fear and disaster two weeks ago at the Talladega 500.

Two hours before the Talladega race, Michael Waltrip begged his fellow drivers to be considerate of each other, especially in light of Earnhardt's death two months earlier at Daytona. He promised to look out for them if they looked out for him. The race didn't have the big wreck everyone expected, but it also lacked the bold moves that are a trademark at Talladega.

Zanardi likened Sunday's IndyCar race at Texas to the Talladega 500. But unlike stock car drivers two weeks earlier, the CART drivers decided the show wasn't as important as their safety.

"Thank goodness we weren't put in a position where we all had to go out there and look out for each other and then go out there an put on a show," he said. "We could have done that, but to do so would have been insane. This way, the biggest consequence wasn't a human life."

The drivers met two hours before the race, and they voted unanimously to boycott. Speedway officials were stunned; race fans were angry.

One fan waved a sign that said CART stood for "Cowards Aren't Racing Today."

Speedway general manager Eddie Gossage said CART should have known what to expect at Texas. "It should have been sufficiently tested months and months and months ago," he said. "Both TMS and the fans are frustrated by what has happened."

But it's important to understand something more important: The drivers also are frustrated.

"The G-forces were beyond what I could have ever imagined," said Michael Andretti. "You feel very compressed when you get down in the corners. Everything is just compressing your body. It's a feeling I've never had before."

Drivers have taken stands in the past, not always successfully.

The last time stock car drivers united in a protest was in 1969 at Talladega. Drivers thought the new speedway was too fast and too dangerous, but NASCAR president Bill France squashed the uprising by convincing ARCA drivers to compete in the inaugural race. Drivers have been leery of taking any stands against the sanctioning body since.

Interstate Batteries, the lead sponsor for Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, said it wouldn't require Labonte to compete at Talladega. The driver never hesitated and was at Talladega. The show must go on.

In 1985, CART drivers were uncomfortable with new radial tires provided by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. at the Michigan Speedway, especially after there were three tire-related crashes during practice.

The boycott led to a six-day delay of the race, and a revival of the old bias-ply tire by Goodyear.

NASCAR has yet to require the use of the Head and Neck Support system that restricts a violent whiplash movement that's suspected to have caused the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Earnhardt in the past 11 months.

During the season-opening Daytona 500, there were only 13 drivers wearing a safety collar. By Talladega two weeks ago, there were only nine drivers who didn't wear a safety collar.

Sometimes drivers make quiet stands for their safety. And sometimes they have to walk out on a main event before the green flag.

The important thing is they understand the ultimate responsibility for their own well-being is their own.