Have race cars become too fast for humans to handle safely, flying like an upside-down airplane, glued to the racing surface by aerodynamic devices?
The lightweight cars, when the air flow is normal, react like slot cars on the smooth asphalt, but once the air is disturbed, they can turn into missiles with the driver becoming merely a passenger.
This question has been asked ever since Barney Oldfield drove 100 mph with no roll bar, no safety belts, not even a driving suit.
It is a question perhaps without an answer, but today it becomes appropriate after the death of Greg Moore in a violent, 225-mph crash Sunday during the early laps of the Marlboro 500 at California Speedway.
Moore, one of the most talented and popular drivers on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit, died of massive head and internal injuries after his Player’s Forsyth Mercedes-Benz slid sideways coming out of the second turn of the two-mile track. The car, out of control, seemed to pick up speed as it careened across the backstretch apron and the infield grass before slamming into the retaining wall on the inside of the track.
The car was on its side as it hit, the cockpit taking the full impact before it rebounded off the wall and slid to a stop upside down.
After getting Moore out of the mangled car, emergency crews airlifted him to Loma Linda Medical Center, where Dr. Steve Olvey, CART director of medical affairs, said he died at 1:21 p.m.
This was the latest in what seems to be an epidemic of racing fatalities. Rookie driver Gonzalo Rodriguez of Uruguay lost his life Sept. 11 at Laguna Seca Raceway in Northern California; two drivers have been killed at Irwindale Raceway since the half-mile track opened last March; three spectators were killed by wheels that flew off wrecked cars at Charlotte Motor Speedway at an Indy Racing League event May 1, and three other spectators lost their lives in a similar accident a year ago in a CART race at Michigan Speedway.
Moore, 24, a Canadian who lived in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, almost did not race Sunday. He suffered a broken finger when he fell from a motor scooter Saturday morning in the speedway paddock and was unable to qualify later in the day. He received permission from CART to take a few practice laps late Saturday to see if he could drive in the race.
Dr. Olvey said he checked Moore after the test, and again after Sunday morning’s warmup and that he was having no difficulty handling the wheel. Because he did not qualify, Moore had to start at the rear of the field.
After starting 27th, Moore had moved up through the field to 15th by the 10th lap, when the accident occurred.
Adrian Fernandez of Mexico won the 500-mile race in a tense finish with Max Papis of Italy and Christian Fittipaldi of Brazil. Fernandez won $1 million.
None of the drivers were informed during the race of Moore’s death, a circumstance that led to Fernandez, Papis and several others breaking into tears instead of celebrating their performance when they climbed from their cars.
“There is no word, nothing to say,” said a sobbing Papis, one of Moore’s closest friends. “We have to understand how these things happen. Greg was a very special person on the track and off the track. I am very sorry for his family.
“I had no idea about Greg’s accident. Bobby [Rahal] came on the radio after the race and said he had some very bad news to tell me. It is such a tragedy. We must pray for Greg, Gonzalo and Jeff [Krosnoff]. We are not here to kill ourselves, we need to pray.”
Krosnoff, a CART driver from La Canada, was killed in an accident in Toronto in 1996. Coincidentally, Fernandez also won that race.
The crowd, estimated at 90,000, was told over the public-address system of Moore’s death and the three flags at Victory Circle, the U.S., California and sponsoring FedEx, were lowered to half-staff at the time.
It was only a month ago that Rodriguez, a rookie driver from Uruguay, was killed when his car failed to make the turn at the top of Laguna Seca Raceway’s famed Corkscrew turn and crashed head-on into a fence and catapulted over it.
Rodriguez was driving one of Roger Penske’s cars. Ironically, Moore was making his last appearance on Jerry Forsyth’s team. He had already signed to drive for Penske in 2000.
Before the race, Moore said, “I’m pleased that this last race is Fontana because we’ve had success there and on other super ovals in the past.”
Two years ago, in the inaugural race at California Speedway, Moore led with 10 laps to go before having engine problems, and last year he finished second to Jimmy Vasser.
Since joining CART in 1996, Moore won five races, including this year’s season opener at Homestead, Fla. When he won his first race, at Milwaukee in 1997, he became the youngest winning driver in CART history. He was 22 years, 1 month, 29 days.
All victory ceremonies Sunday were canceled and CART officials, along with series sponsors FedEx and PPG, were planning to cancel tonight’s CART season-ending banquet at the Century Plaza until Rick Moore, Greg’s father, asked them to carry on.
“We will make our banquet into a memorial for Greg Moore,” said Andrew Craig, president of CART.