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Ford, Honda, Toyota Spiked By Cart

by Larry Roberts

May 7, 2001

It hardly drew more than a three-line mention on the sports pages of most daily newspapers around the country, but the cancellation of the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) Champ Car race at the new Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth last month is having monumental reverberations throughout the motorsports industry. Champ Car racing fans are up in arms (especially those 50,000-some odd that were in attendance), speedway management is getting ready to launch a sticky and vindictive lawsuit and worst of all, the stock value of CART (a publicly-traded corporation) dropped from $17 per share to $15 the following day. The value of stock in Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (the company that owns the track) dropped 11-percent at the same time. Big-time auto racing is very big business and traditionally executive heads roll when these kinds of goof-ups occur.

So far, the only entities that haven't been heard from in the donnybrook are the motorsports departments of Ford, Toyota and Honda, makers of the engines that power CART race cars. Those companies pour millions of dollars annually into the development of the engines with the hope that brand-name recognition by fans will make their investments worthwhile. Mercedes was also in the game but dropped out at the beginning of this season.

CART had 32 races scheduled for the 2001 season but with the cancellation of the Texas event and a political/financial screw-up that caused the cancellation of the CART race in Brazil earlier this year, the return-on-investment for the auto makers has diminished accordingly. But the reported cause of the cancellation of the Texas event was medical reasons rather than for financial or political problems. The Texas track is a 1.5-mile oval that features 24 degrees of banking on the corners. After repeatedly reassuring the track management that Champ Cars had been thoroughly tested on the high-bank track under all racing conditions, CART pulled the plug the morning of the event after several drivers complained of dizziness during extended practice sessions. The reason given for this eleventh-hour discovery of driver disorientation and inability to concentrate was that the racers hadn't undergone more than 10 laps of extended practice where speeds of over 233 mph had been experienced at such high levels of down-force. The unanswered question is why CART officials hadn't conducted track testing that would have revealed the problem months earlier. As late as 10 days before the event, track manager Eddie Gossage claims to have received a letter from CART officials that stated that CART was "...ready, willing and able.." to run the race.

There were press rumors that Gossage and track owner Bruton Smith pressured CART or its drivers to go on with the race, a charge that both emphatically deny. "At no time this weekend did we ever demand CART run this race," Gossage said emphatically.

In international Formula One racing, the participating auto manufacturers, Ford, Renault, Mercedes et al have threatened to start a breakaway racing series when their vested interests were put in jeopardy by a perceived threat to their TV promotional brand exposure. Hopefully, Ford, Honda and Toyota won't have to enter the CART picture to emphasize their dissatisfaction.