After the tragic accident one year ago this week when three spectators were killed by flying debris during the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway, racing's response was to raise the fences in hopes of containing loose wheels and other car parts.
Then came an eerily similar accident May 1 during the VisionAire 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., in which three spectators were killed and eight others injured when hit by a wheel that flew into the grandstand.
Both incidents having been caused by wheels breaking away from the chassis during accidents, the two sanctioning bodies for open-wheel racing, CART and the Indy Racing League, began requiring a tethering system--officially called energy absorption restraints--on the wheels of their race cars.
The IRL, which sanctioned the Charlotte race, ordered them placed on all four wheels for the Indianapolis 500 and all subsequent races. CART, which ran the U.S. 500, used them on front wheels only for a race at Gateway Raceway on May 29, but will have all four wheels tethered when the U.S. 500 returns to Michigan on Sunday.
"Nothing you can do can guarantee complete safety when you're dealing with cars running 200 mph," said Leo Mehl, IRL executive director. But each step taken is one more plus in making racing safer than before-- especially for spectators.
"We are pleased with the way the energy absorption restraints responded [at Gateway Raceway] and we remain cautiously optimistic," said Tim Mayer, CART senior vice president of racing operations. "Safety procedures are evolutionary, and we will have an ongoing process throughout the season to evaluate their performances."
Skeptics of the tether restraints have pointed out that a wheel from Robby Gordon's car broke loose at Gateway, but their criticism has been unjustified.
"We did not have enough material for restraints on all four wheels for every FedEx car for that first race, so we had the front wheels tethered," said Kirk Russell, CART vice president of competition. "It was one of Gordon's rear wheels that separated.
"For this year, all our restraints have been retrofitted. For our 2000 cars, the restraint system will be built into the chassis, which should make it more effective."
The IRL will also make the wheel restraints an integral part of its new model chassis next year.
"We feel the system has been working very well, but we will continue to make improvements as we learn more," said Phil Casey, IRL technical director. "When Steve Knapp hit the wall at Atlanta, the impact was 92 1/2 Gs and every wheel broke loose, but the cables hung on to the wheels."
Knapp, Indy 500 rookie of the year after finishing third in 1998, was hospitalized with a broken back and is expected to be out of competition for three months or more.
"We have used the cables for four races and have had 16 wheels knocked off and only three got loose," continued Casey. "When the system becomes part of the body of the car, we feel it will be 90% safe-proof."
The idea for tethering wheels came from Formula One, where the concern was more for protecting the driver from a rebounding wheel than for spectators. At Formula One races, where speeds are much slower and there are many low-speed turns, the prospects that a loose tire might be catapulted into the stands is much less likely.
The FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) began requiring suspension and wheel tethers at the beginning of the season, in part a reaction to the death of legendary Ayrton Senna, who was killed when the right front wheel of his car rebounded into the cockpit and a suspension arm pierced the visor of his helmet during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
In addition to cars in Sunday's U.S. 500, CART will require tethers for cars in its two development series, PPG Dayton Indy Lights and Kool/Toyota Atlantic.
Obscured by fatalities, last year's U.S. 500 was the most competitive race in champ car history with 62 lead changes before Greg Moore slipped past Jimmy Vasser on the last lap to win.
CART officials credited the Handford Device, a winglike aerodynamic piece used to help contain speeds at superspeedways, for the amount of passing. It will be used again Sunday.
Midway through its inaugural season, Irwindale Speedway will undergo a major change in its schedule next month.
Friday night racing will be discontinued--except for two special events--and Saturday night programs will be beefed up with added races. One-night-a-week racing will begin Aug. 7.
"We're combining the best of our Friday and Saturday night shows into one night of great racing action," said Ray Wilkings, Irwindale's chief operating officer. "Saturday nights are the best night for racing for everyone concerned--fans, racers and sponsors.
"With our revised schedule, we expect to see stronger car counts in all our racing divisions, and that will make it great for all our fans."
Complaints from drivers, crew members and spectators that it was too difficult to get to the track in time for Friday night qualifying and racing was a major reason for the schedule change. Car counts and attendance were both below expectations at the 6,500-seat facility.
Twelve Friday night programs will be eliminated. The two exceptions will be Oct. 15 when ESPN will televise the first of two nights of U.S. Auto Club open-wheel racing, and Nov. 12 when the American Race Trucks begin their two-night National Finals.
The season will close Thursday night, Nov. 25, with the 59th running of USAC's Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix.
Regular Friday night racing will continue tonight and next week.
GORDON VS. JARRETT
The war of words and accusations between Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett after their fender-banging incidents at Loudon, N.H., two weeks ago has apparently been smoothed over.
On the eve of Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, all was peaches and cream between the two Winston Cup rivals. The two had words after Gordon's last-lap pass of Jarrett for second place at Loudon, in which Gordon ran into Jarrett.
"D.J. and I are fine," said the two-time Winston Cup champion. "I think we just got caught up in the heat of the moment, but we talked again later before we left the track and everything is fine. As far as I'm concerned, it was behind us the minute we left the track."
Said Jarrett: "As far as Jeff and I are concerned, that's over and done with. We'll go on racing a lot more with each other, but I know a little bit more now about how we're going to race each other. That's what I've always tried to do: Race a guy the way he races me."
England-based G Force, builder of the winning car at the 1997 Indianapolis 500, has been acquired by Elan Motorsports Technologies Group of Atlanta. At the same time, Elan purchased Van Diemen International, the world's largest manufacturer of single-seat racing cars. Don Panoz, owner of the American LeMans sports car series, is president of Elan.
For the fourth time since Bill Doner resigned as commissioner of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Assn. last summer, the organization has had a change of command. Bob Gobrecht, who started this season as president and chief executive, resigned last week and Ken Muscatel will be interim president. Before Gobrecht, Ned Allen and Muscatel each ran the organization briefly.
Matt Alcone's Team Fountain US1 set a world kilo record of 155.54 mph during a Union Internationale Motornautique speed week in Arendal, Norway. Alcone, of Laguna Beach, drove the open class boat with Jerry Gilbreath of Priest River, Idaho, the throttle man.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been granted a date on the National Hot Rod Assn. drag racing schedule for April 7-9, 2000. The dragway, adjacent to the 1.5-mile superspeedway, is now under construction.
Emil Andres, who drove in nine Indianapolis 500s between 1936 and 1949, died Tuesday of head injuries after a fall at his home in Flossmoor, Ill. He would have been 88 on Thursday. Andres' best finish at Indy was a fourth in 1946. His only champ car win came at the Milwaukee 100 in 1948. He was a past president of the Indy 500 Old Timers Club.
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This Week's Races
WINSTON CUP, Pennsylvania 500
* When: Today, first-round qualifying, noon (Fox Sports West, 8 p.m.); Saturday, second-round qualifying, 8:30 a.m.; Sunday, race (TBS, 10 a.m.).
* Where: Pocono International Raceway (triangle oval, 2.5 miles, 14 degrees banking in turn 1, 8 degrees in turn 2, 6 degrees in turn 3), Long Pond, Pa.
* Race distance: 500 miles, 200 laps.
* Defending champion: Jeff Gordon.
* Last race: Jeff Burton pulled ahead when Tony Stewart ran out of gas on the 298th of 300 laps, winning his third consecutive Jiffy Lube 300 in Loudon, N.H.
* Next race: Brickyard 400, Aug. 7, Indianapolis.
BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL, Pikes Peak 250
* When: Today, second-round qualifying, 1 p.m.; Saturday, race (ESPN, noon).
* Where: Pikes Peak International Raceway (oval, 1 mile, 10 degrees banking in turns), Fountain, Colo.
* Race distance: 250 miles, 250 laps.
* Defending champion: Matt Kenseth.
* Next race: Gateway 250, July 31, Madison, Ill.
CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, goracing.com 200
* When: Today, qualifying, 9:45 a.m.; Saturday, race (ESPN, 10 a.m.).
* Where: Michigan Speedway (d-shaped oval, 2 miles, 18 degrees banking in turns), Brooklyn, Mich.
* Race distance: 200 miles, 100 laps.
* Defending champion: Inaugural race.
* Last race: Greg Biffle overcame two early pit stops to win the NAPA AutoCare 200 in Nazareth, Pa. Biffle started from the pole, but dropped to 20th after pitting on the 50th lap. Eventually, he got back in front and passed teammate and leader Mike Bliss on the 135th of 200 laps.
* Next race: Pennzoil-VIP Discount 200, Aug. 1, Loudon, N.H.
CART, U.S. 500
* When: Saturday, qualifying 8:30 a.m. (ESPN2, 3 p.m.); Sunday, race (ABC, 10:30 a.m.).
* Where: Michigan Speedway (d-shaped oval, 2 miles, 18 degrees banking in turns), Brooklyn, Mich.
* Race distance: 500 miles, 250 laps.
* Defending champion: Greg Moore.
* Last race: Dario Franchitti won the Molson Indy in Toronto. Team Kool Green teammate Paul Tracy trailed Franchitti across the finish line by 2.624 seconds.
* Next race: Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix, Aug. 8, Detroit.
FORMULA ONE, Austrian Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speedvision, 4 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speedvision, 4:30 a.m.).
* Where: A1-Ring (road course, 2.687 miles), Spielberg, Austria.
* Race distance: 190.777 miles, 71 laps.
* Defending champion: Mika Hakkinen.
* Last race: David Coulthard of McLaren won the British Grand Prix, one of three Britons among the top six. Two-time series champion Michael Schumacher suffered a broken right leg in a crash and could be sidelined the rest of the season.
* Next race: German Grand Prix, Aug. 1, Hockenheim.