FORT WORTH -- The winner of the Firestone Firehawk 600 pulled into victory lane to a roar.
Most of the roughly 65,000 in attendance at Texas Motor Speedway had stuck around to witness history.
The winner of CART’s first race at the 5-year-old track emerged from his cockpit. The sound of his home country’s national anthem - played by a small symphony located nearby - filled the air.
Cheers and confetti showered the area as the track’s vice president and general manager, Eddie Gossage, presented the victor and two runner ups with their spoils.
The drivers waved to fans and media with medals - gold, silver and bronze - around their necks.
The date was April 29, 2001. The third race of CART’s season had gone off without a hitch.
Except it didn’t.
There wasn’t a celebration. There wasn’t a winner.
In its 24-year history, only one CART race was ever outright canceled due to concerns for driver safety.
The 2001 Firestone Firehawk 600 is that race.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
On March 21, 2001, Joe Heitzler, the president and CEO of CART sent Eddie Gossage a letter proclaiming his series “ready, willing and able” to fulfill the three-year contract it had agreed to with Texas Motor Speedway in July 2000.
The letter by Heitzler, who had taken over for interim CEO and president Bobby Rahal in December, was in reply to a confidential one penned by Gossage the day before following a meeting between officials from CART and TMS about the race.
Gossage had left the meeting under the impression that neither CART nor the CART Driver’s Association, represented by president Maurício Gugelmin, “did not want to compete” at his track six weeks later.
Heitzler said this wasn’t the case, that he was “extremely surprised” Gossage felt “CART did not want to compete at Texas Motor Speedway” and Gugelmin was only “merely addressing and expressing” his own “concerns.”
Near the end of Heitzler’s letter, sent from CART’s headquarters in Troy, Michigan, the CEO made a point to remind Gossage of paragraph 16(A) of the CART sanctioning agreement. The paragraph stated that any changes made to a track to meet CART and/or FIA safety requirements must be paid for at the “Organizer/Promoter’s expense.”
Failure to do so would “result in the postponement or cancellation of such Event, in CART’s sole discretion.”
Sometime during this period, Gossage came to regret entering the deal with CART.
“I’ll be honest, it was my mistake, I should have never done it,” says Gossage in 2016. “It wasn’t fair to IndyCar. I told Tony George at the time, long before we got to April, that it was a mistake on my part and I shouldn’t have done it.”
Gossage would send at least five letters to CART in the months before the April 29 race.
Some of the letters informed CART that TMS had executed , but not without expressing disagreement, requested safety related changes to the track.. These included the addition of a temporary wall on pit road and the removal of Musco Mir-Tran lights on the backstretch, a request made 18 days before the race.
But a major theme of the letters was imploring the sanctioning body to do two things: to slow its cars down and to conduct an open test. The latter to help figure out a way to do the former.
A letter from Oct. 18, 2000 informed Rahal the track had concerns about the “design and strength” of the wishbones, uprights, rockers, pushrods and A-arms on CART’s cars.
In addition to his request for a test, Gossage also “strongly urged” that CART lower speeds into the 220-225 mph range, which were closer to the speeds from the then rival Indy Racing League – or IRL cars that had run at the track starting in 1997.
Another letter a month later informed Rahal that he had had a discussion with Al Speyer of Firestone. Gossage learned while the company was confident it could build a proper tire for the race if CART didn’t slow its cars, “that it was absolutely necessary” for a test to take place to help build the tires.
In March 2001, Gossage attended a meeting with CART advisor Wally Dallenbach, president of racing Hal Whiteford and Chief Steward Chris Kneifel, who was in his first month on the job as a successor to Dallenbach.
In the meeting, Gossage read aloud his Oct. 18th, 2000 letter to the trio addressing his concerns about speeds and slowing down the series’ cars.
When he was done and set the letter down, he looked up to see Dallenbach shaking his head.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were crazy,” Gossage recalls Dallenbach saying. “I didn’t know about this and I should ... I don’t know anything about that letter and you’re exactly right.”
Kneifel told NBC Sports he also was also not aware of any correspondence about the Texas race before he was hired.
In 1996, Dallenbach had visited the construction site of Texas Motor Speedway. Five years before the Firestone Firehawk 600, he deemed the track’s configuration unfit for CART competition.
A test could also have helped generate hype in the DFW area, which had been exposed to NASCAR and the Indy Racing League for the previous five years.
Even Mike Zizzo, who was then vice president of competition and head of PR for CART, thought it was a good idea.
“It wasn’t like some crazy idea, because when we went to new venues, we would usually do an open test with multiple cars, or we actually go in a day or two early like to an international event or do a full day of testing,” Zizzo says, saying CART “would kill it” in a new venue in the “top-five market” of DFW.
“But that fell on deaf ears because it came down to money because the owners felt it was too expensive to do a full test down here for a day or two. That’s when they started eliminating testing and such. It never happened. We wound up sending one car down.”
Less than two weeks after Heitzler was announced as the head of CART on Dec. 8, Kenny Brack and Team Rahal headed to Texas Motor Speedway for a test.
Brack, the 1998 IRL champion and 1999 Indy 500 winner, drove for the now former CART CEO, Rahal. But from his IRL days, he was the only driver in the CART field with any experience racing at TMS.
“In the testing we did, we didn’t run that fast, but then of course the winter went by and the engine development and all the rest of it came into play and when we turned up for the race weekend, obviously speeds were very high,” says Brack.
“All the hype and subjective comment we’ve heard was not for real,” said Team Rahal technical director Don Halliday. “The car behaved like a normal race car. The maximum lateral G spikes we saw were 4.5 for a tenth of a second or so, which is normal for tracks like that. So it was no big deal. Everything was A-OK.”
Gossage remembers the day of the test, Dec. 18, because it fell on the same day as his daughter Jessica’s birthday.
But he also remembers it because he didn’t like what he heard.
“I’ve been around CART since ’83, so I know what 100 percent sounds like when they’re running,” Gossage says. “I could tell sitting in my office behind glass he wasn’t full throttle.”
Though he doesn’t remember test times, Brack denies he was under any orders to not go 100 percent during the 50 test laps he recorded that day.
“It wasn’t like we were there testing and sandbagging or anything. We were there for a proper test,” says Brack. “I remember there were very heavy gust of winds ...which we had to adjust the car for, so we knew we were going to be quicker in somewhat more normal conditions.”
Gugelmin would also conduct a test, on a “miserable day in February.”
On the March 19 teleconference with Gossage and CART officials, the Brazilian would claim that CART was “wrong for this track,” “CART’s wing configuration is wrong” and that the series’ cars were “too fast.”
GOT A TROPHY?
Eddie Gossage had a problem and it had nothing to do with high speeds or driver safety, yet.
It was April 27, and 48 hours remained before the green flag was supposed to wave on the Firestone Firehawk 600.
But the race still didn’t have an official trophy.
Hoping to market and present the race internationally, like the Olympics, Gossage had instructed his PR department to make gold, silver and bronze medals for the top-three finishers. A symphony had been hired to learn the national anthem of every driver in the field.
But Gossage didn’t see the medals until that Friday.
“When I saw them, it looked like something that was done by Ms. Johnson’s 2nd grade class,” says Gossage. “They were hideous, it was embarrassing.”
The medals were presented to Gossage in his office by a woman from the PR department, tears streaming down her face knowing how bad they looked. She offered to resign.
Gossage refused, and instructed the employee to make haste with going to a jewelry store and finding something, anything, that could be presented to the winner on Sunday.
Before the day was up, she had brought back rectangular, silver trays reminiscent of those given out at Wimbledon. Inscribed on them was the race title, the date and in the very middle, “Winner.”
“They were just about as bad as the medals, but it was too late,” says Gossage. “I was going to be so embarrassed in victory lane.”
‘I BECAME A PASSENGER’
CART’s turbocharged engines produced about 150 more horsepower than their normally aspirated counterparts in the IRL. This was one ingredient that led to 14 drivers posting at least one lap of above 230 mph during the first day of practice for the Firestone Firehawk 600, at least 5 mph above the threshold Gossage had hoped to reduce speeds to.
Brack’s average was the best at 233.785 mph and was followed by Tony Kanaan at 233.539 mph.
Unofficially, Brack’s speed was 7.806 MPH faster than the TMS track record and 18.433 MPH faster Greg Ray’s pole speed (215.352 MPH) for the last IRL race at the track, held in October 2000. The fastest speed of the entire day was 238.936 MPH by Dario Franchitti at the start-finish line in the second practice session.
Kanaan told the Dallas Morning News the track felt more secure than driving on the 2-mile, lower banked Michigan International Speedway.
“The banking actually helps the car turn,” Kanaan said. “You lose the car less here than I did at Michigan.”
But for Michael Andretti, the winningest driver in CART history, the experience was “even worse than I thought it would be,” describing it as a “video game because things happen so fast.”
Kneifel, in just his third race weekend at Chief Steward, was in Race Control when he first started hearing reports from series officials on pit road.
After pulling off the track during the first practice session, drivers were reporting being dizzy. Some were even losing their equilibrium upon exiting the car.
Zizzo, located in the press box in the frontstretch suites, said one could get dizzy just from watching the cars on track.
At one point, he received a call from CART’s medical official, Dr. Stephen Olvey to tell him about the driver reports of dizziness.
“Max Papis is driving around and they’re telling him to pit and he’s going so fast he couldn’t tell the front stretch from the back stretch,” Zizzo says.
Papis told the DMN it was like a flight he had taken in a F-16 fighter jet two years prior.
“It’s pulling my stomach, my arms and even the skin on my face to the right,” Papis said. “The entry to the corners (is) a little too tight for our cars, but we’ll get used to it for the race.”
One driver who wouldn’t get used to it was Gugelmin. In the last minute of the practice session, the Brazilian lost control exiting Turn 2 and slammed into the outside wall at 66-Gs. His feet became stuck between the brake and throttle pedals, sending the car careening down the backstretch, skidding off the inside wall before sliding back up and hitting the outside wall in Turn 3 with 113-Gs and coming to a rest at the exit to Turn 4.
“I was able to correct the first twitch, but then the back-end came around again and I lost it,” Gugelmin would say. “I remember heading towards the wall, then the next thing I remember is letting go of the wheel and I became a passenger. Then when I finally stopped, I could see daylight by my feet and Dr. (Terry) Trammell greeting me at my car.”
Dr. Olvey described the incident in his book “Rapid Response":
While Gugelmin would be placed on a backboard and taken to a local hospital, he somehow experienced no major injuries. He would, however, miss the rest of the race weekend.
On Saturday, Brack officially toppled the track record at 233.447 MPH to earn the pole for the race. In fact, 24 of 25 drivers would surpass the old record, set in 1998 by Billy Boat at 225.979 MPH.
But as speeds grew, so did fears and concerns.
National Speed Sport News and Autoweek reporter John Oreovicz sat in the grandstands during the morning practice session. Now with ESPN, Oreovicz had been attending races since 1977.
“It was one of the only times in my life I felt scared for the drivers and the fans,” he says. “The high-pitched engines of that era revving to 15,000 + exacerbated the feeling of speed.”
Said Gil de Ferran, “I wouldn’t be too surprised if I see somebody pass out there in the middle of the race.”
During that morning session, Cristiano da Matta, the series’ points leader after two races, crashed but was uninjured when his No. 6 Toyota/Lola spun and hit the wall out of Turn 2.
The Brazilian said his car could have been unsettled by the air from a slow car, or “it could have been a combination of things.”
Saturday night, Gossage sat in his office writing a speech.
Gossage was fresh from a 15-minute meeting in the track’s media center with officials from CART and engine manufacturers. Also in attendance was Bruton Smith, the head of Speedway Motorsports, Inc.
Gossage and Smith had met with Heitzler and between nine and 12 others. The meeting was a result of a call by Heitzler to Gossage while the general manager attended a motocross event at TMS’ dirt track, with Heitzler being adamant that they meet.
Gossage called up Smith, who was staying in the track’s condo in Turn 2.
“CART wants to talk to us and I can guarantee they’re going to want to talk about canceling this race,” Gossage said.
“No, they’re not about to do that,” Smith replied.
“I guarantee you that’s what they’re going to throw out there,” Gossage said.
In the media center, the group sat in a semi-circle of chairs as the track executives listened to a “long explanation” about horsepower, downforce and aerodynamics to explain what was happening with their cars and drivers.
“He’s one of the smartest people walking the planet today and Bruton transforms right in front of my eyes into a guy that clearly isn’t understanding a word,” Gossage says. “They could be speaking in some foreign language. It is clear to them that he wasn’t understanding any of this. It just befuddled them more. Once in a while, Bruton would lean over to me and say loud enough for them to hear, ‘you know, they really need to slow the cars down.’ I guarantee you Bruton knows more about race cars and racing than anybody sitting in that room. He threw them completely off stride.”
The meeting concluded with Gossage and Smith standing to leave and the latter saying, “These gentlemen have to figure out how to slow these cars down before tomorrow morning.”
Meanwhile, ESPN reporter Robin Miller, who’s now a NBCSN contributor, was walking through the track’s infield. Coming the other way was Dario Franchitti - not a yet a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 - walking his dogs.
“What’s up, brother?” Miller asked.
“I’m not sure we’re going to have a race tomorrow,” Franchitti responded.
TO RACE OR NOT RACE
It was a long night for Zizzo.
The PR man was the messenger, going back and forth between a driver’s meeting and an owner’s meeting as both groups decided on if the Firestone Firehawk 600 would be run.
“It was funny because everyone had a quick fix to it,” Zizzo says. “If you reduce the boost, which we looked at, that was the first option we looked at, we could reduce it a percentage and slow down the cars three or four MPH, I think it’s what it was. If you went further than that, there was going to be an issue with engines. A chance that they could blow, they’re going to have mechanical issues. Now your engine manufacturers are concerned about ‘we’re going to be embarrassed, ‘cause we’re going to have all these mechanical failures on our engines.”
The most “bizarre” solution Zizzo heard was placing cones on the backstretch to create a chicane. At one point Heitzler asked Zizzo for his opinion.
“All the information we have at this point, for us to run a race and have the chance that we can injure a driver or kill a driver, CART will be no longer, right?” Zizzo said.
The driver’s meeting was divided, though Brack remembers only he and Paul Tracy voting in favor of running the race.
“So you had Paul Tracy that said, ‘why don’t you just have some balls and just run?’” says Zizzo. “Then you had a guy like Alex Zanardi who said ‘Honestly, it’s not worth it to lose someone in this room tomorrow. I’ve had a great career, I don’t need to do it. But I know there’s guys in here that have to do it.’
He goes, ‘If we run it, I’ll run.’”
Eventually, CART would decide on lowering the wicker on the rear spoiler, a slight reduction in the boost and hoping for the better results in a 15-minute morning practice.
The morning practice wasn’t the only track activity of the day; there was also an Indy Lights race, which was won by Irishman Damien Faulkner, a talented young rookie who was hoping to advance into CART at some point but has since shifted to sports car racing.
Alas, in another morning meeting, officials concluded the planned changes wouldn’t be enough.
‘THAT TICKED ME OFF’
Gossage sat in his Tahoe with his wife, Melinda. Looking into his rear-view mirror, he could Heitzler and Zizzo “circling” around the front door of the track’s media center about 30 feet away. They were waiting for him.
Heitzler, Dr. Olvey and Michael Andretti had just given a press conference announcing the cancelation of the Firestone Firehawk 600. It had been made in the media center’s theater, with all the TMS logos covered up, by Gossage’s order.
Dr. Olvey revealed that over the previous two days, based on a poll taken Saturday, all but four of the 25 drivers (Tracy and Brack were two of them) who would have started the race had experienced some level of inner ear or vision problems after running more than 10 laps at once. It was a result of drivers being exposed to G-Forces that exceeded “human tolerance.”
One driver told Olvey he had trouble standing and walking for four to five minutes after exiting the car. Olvey said he had never seen or heard anything like it in his career.
''This is not an issue of safety at this track,’' Heitzler said. ''This was safety of the drivers in their performance of their skills.’'
Now it was Gossage’s turn for address the media, in which he would say “CART should have known” and reference Heitzler’s March 21 letter. But first he was going to have to deal with Heitzler and Zizzo before entering the building.
As soon as he exited the vehicle, Gossage recalls Heitzler breaking into a run to intercept him. The two had only known each other five months, but Heitzler acted like they were old friends.
After telling Gossage he had always looked up to and admired him, Heitzler finally asked Gossage to not “throw us under the bus.”
Embarrassed by the scene unfolding, Gossage moved toward the entrance.
“We need to be unified in this press conference and have one voice,” Zizzo called after him.
The last few months of frustrations with the sanctioning body almost came to a head.
“It really ticked me off,” says Gossage. The general manager abruptly turned back to Zizzo, unsure if he was “going to grab Ziz by the throat or punch him in the mouth.”
Neither happened. Track official Kenton Nelson quickly stepped between the two and reminded his boss “you need to go hold a press conference.”
On May 2, TMS released a statement officially announcing the Firestone Firehawk 600 would “not be rescheduled.”
Five days later, the track announced it had filed a lawsuit in the 393rd District Court in Denton County against CART. The track sought a reimbursement of the sanctioning fee and the race purse as well as “compensation for expenses incurred by the Speedway, lost profits and other damages.”
Eddie Gossage and his track would not be completely rid of the failed attempt at a race, and the entire three-year contract, until CART and TMS settled on Oct. 16, 2001.
“In retrospect, it was probably the right decision not to hold the race I have to admit, because obviously if somebody would have gotten hurt because of this, that wouldn’t have been a good thing,” says Brack, who remembers a fan made sign at the track saying “Cowards Aren’t Racing Today.” But he would later add, “But that’s what race teams and drivers do, we go fast, and we should have run the race.”
Helio Castroneves, who was in his fourth and last season in CART before going to the IRL with Roger Penske in 2002, is grateful the race wasn’t run.
“It was the right decision, to this day,” Castroneves said last March, admitting he had experienced symptoms, including dehydration and dizziness. “Glad we moved on from that...got to rely on the decision of the medical people because they studied and spent their lives doing those things.”
15 YEARS LATER
Mike Zizzo sits in his office in the The Speedway Club at Texas Motor Speedway, and stares at it.
“It” is the trophy. The silver tray that became a last-minute prize for a race that was canceled soon after its title and date were inscribed in its surface.
He rubs his hands over his face, wearily, likely thinking about what CART came close to experiencing 15 years ago.
“I swear it feels like a 100 years ago, like a second life or a third life,” he says.
Zizzo is now the vice president of media relations of the track, his office a short walk from Gossage’s.
Two years after the CART debacle, Zizzo got a change of scenery with a job at NASCAR.
Shortly after his arrival, Zizzo received one of his first assignments from vice president Jim Hunter.
“One of the first events I’m assigned to for a race,” Zizzo says as he wraps his desk, “is here.
The PR man returned to Fort Worth for the Winston Cup Series’ Samsung / Radio Shack 500, run on March 30.
Zizzo and Gossage’s paths converged once again prior to a crisis management meeting. The ice was broken by Gossage.
“Hey, can I have a minute with you when this meeting ends?” Gossage asked. Zizzo said yes.
“‘Oh, God, here it goes,” Zizzo thought. “‘He is going to unload on me because our circus packed up and left, so he probably didn’t get to have his final words to me and CART about how we screwed him over, which we did.’”
But there wouldn’t be any confrontation.
“Hey, I just want to tell you, there’s no hard feelings,” Gossage said. “I understand your position and what you had to do and I hope you understand mine.”
“I do, we were just protecting our brand, our assets,” Zizzo replied. “You were protecting Texas Motor Speedway, I was doing the same with IndyCar, right or wrong.’
The two shook hands and that was it, at least until Gossage thought of Zizzo for a job opening in 2005.
Shortly after his arrival in Fort Worth, Zizzo was cleaning out a closet in the track’s offices. It was then that he stumbled upon a silver tray in a box.
In the center of its surface was the inscription for a race nobody won.
“For all it cost me that day, at least I can say...I wouldn’t even say I put it proudly in my office, but it’s just one of those lifetime moments, unfortunately,” Zizzo says. “But you learn from those.”
Kenny Brack still has the helmet. It’s the one awarded to him when he blistered TMS’ surface to earn the pole for “the race that never happened.”
He keeps it with the rest of the trophies he’s accumulated over his career.
“It’s a nice history around that pole trophy,” Brack says over the phone from the United Kingdom, 11 years removed from his last open-wheel race in IndyCar. “Bottom line is, that track has been both good and bad to me. I respect it a lot. But I still like it.”
Brack never won at Texas. Others eventually would, including Scott Dixon, Castroneves, de Ferran and Franchitti.
What’s the worse Brack can say about the track? The Indy 500 champion drove his way to a podium, a trivial pole and a crushing loss in the 1999 IRL finale due to a broken ball bearing.
Then in 2003, a devastating wreck broke his sternum, a femur bone and shattered his back and ankles, sidelining him until the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
Says Brack, “It’s a bitch of a place, isn’t it?”
Writer’s note: Special thanks to ESPN’s John Oreovicz for providing resources for research for this article.