Traveled this weekend to Detroit to a reunion of the Championship Auto Racing Teams Safety Team, of which I was Assistant Medical Director from 1980 to 1996. Shortly thereafter, CART suffered an unfortunate fracture creating the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL), which was ultimately their undoing in 2008. It’s a long interesting story which, since I am your FL and it is after all Sunday, I will relate in detail. This is long. Feel free to dump ad lib.
There’s a lot if interesting morals and nuances to this story. The original promoter of open wheel racing was the United States Auto Club (USAC) who officially promoted the Indianapolis 550, the “greatest spectacle in racing”. It was pretty well established at the time that the USAC people were a pretty arrogant lot, caring little about the “sport” (more about the “sport” later) and a lot more about their own self-interest, said to be legendary. They thought they were so powerful they were completely bulletproof.
So the owners of the teams eventually got tired of butting their collective heads against the USAC wall, and in 1979 went rogue, established Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc on a proverbial wing and prayer. USAC immediately did everything they could to insure the demise of the new offshoot, but in 1979, CART became sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and USAC slowly dwindled to the minor leagues of midget racing and maintaining the Indy 500.
About this time CART started looking around for “officials” with some kind of racing experience and interest. At the time I was a resident in Emergency Medicine at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and I had some experience in racing as a kid in 1100 cc Class F Production sports cars for SCCA (MG midget). I was also doing some officiating (trackside doctor) at midget races at Indianapolis Raceway Park as a resident.
My then girlfriend was the ex-wife of Carl Hungness, who published the yearly Indianapolis 500 Yearbook and a bunch of other racing publications. She got two high grade passes every year to the 500, and I was hanging around the pits every May. So I was right on the front row when CART selected Dr. Steve Olvey to be the medical director of CART. Steve was one of the two “intensivists” at Methodist Hospital (a huge 1200 bed facility).
At that time the concept of full time intensive care doctors was rather novel, and after I rotated through the ICU as a resident for a month, this was one of the very large experiences that got me interested in ICU medicine. Steve called me up and asked if I was interested in being his assistant, and of course I was. Safety Director was Steve Edwards, who was on the safety team of USAC for a number of years previously.
There were two safety vehicles on the track, CART 1 and CART 2. Olvey manned CART 1 with Edwards driving and I rode shotgun with CART 2 with Neil Carter who had driven an old roadster at Indy in the 50s. Whenever a “Yellow Flag” flew (some kind of accident), we rolled down the track to investigate and resuscitate if needed. Back in the day we wore jeans and t-shirts, to be replaced by nomex driver’s suits in 1992 when CART received a big infusion of money from an industry deep pocket and it became the PPG Indy Car World Series. The race at Watkins Glen, New York in 1980 was the first time I took my then girlfriend on an out of town trip (ended up making an honest woman of her in 1983).
The concept of safety escalated rapidly with massive infusions of money, ultimately morphing into the Horton Safety Team (via Ohio ambulance manufacturer Carl Horton), which consisted of a big Greyhound bus, totally retrofitted as a hospital on wheels. Fully equipped to deal with virtually any kind of trauma. The bus attended every race. And each race supported an on-site dedicated rescue helicopter on instant call. Later in the game, Horton went away and it became the CART safety Team, with added inputs from Dr. Terry Trammel, orthopedist from Indianapolis and some of his colleagues for every race. Soon there was a critical care of emergency department nurse manning the bus.
Indy Cars are unique in the spectrum of open wheel racers as they are methanol fueled instead of gasoline as in Formula 1. You can’t see the stuff burning on the track. I walked through a field of it once and never saw anything till I looked down and saw my shoes melting. The turbocharged engines put out over 700 horsepower pushing 1600 pounds and the cars easily break 230 miles per hours on a straight course, faster if they were allowed. CART and other sanctioning bodies have worked very hard to slow the cars down, and every year the mechanical engineers manage to make the cars go faster under the same rules. Creative cheating is, of course, also a tradition. The occasional bolt is found jamming the turbo pop-off valve.
The problem with escalating speed is that the tracks were all made in the 50s and 60s, where such speeds were undreamed of. The cars are simply too fast for conditions. And this situation has killed some heavy-duty stars including Michele Alboreto, Mark Donohue, Bruce McLaren, Peter Revson, Gilles Villeneuve and many others. Three time F1 world champion Aryton Senna was universally considered to be the most technically proficient driver that ever lived (in the post-modern racing age). He was killed leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix when he discovered that the car’s speed had exceeded his ability to control it.
Gordon Smiley overcorrected just a hair in the third turn at Indianapolis in 1982 and went dead straight into the wall at 200 mph about 50 yards from where I was standing. I arrived on the carnage with several other safety team types and it was impossible to tell which portion of the trashed car Gordon was in. We finally found him and threw a blanket over the wreckage portion, which had compressed Gordon into a length of about three feet.
I’ve done some strange things on track. Willie T. Ribbs, the first black Indy Car driver, ran over a corner worker in a street race in Vancouver in 1992, and I did a cricothyroidotomy for airway in the middle of the track with cars going by. The worker later died of brain edema from head trauma. I’ve put In chest tubes and intubated drivers still sitting in cars. I intubated former driver, now team owner Chip Ganassi (from Pittsburgh) at Michigan International Speedway in 1984.
Each Indy Car race was supported by another minor league series, originally it was the International Race of Champions (IROC) series, which were hopped up Trans-Ames, and this eventually evolved to “Indy Lights”, which were normally aspirated, stripped down Indy Cars. Actor Paul Newman was a fixture on many of the support races driving a Nissan for SCCA support events.
Newman was a strange duck. He hated having to deal with fans pestering him so much he was just downright obnoxious, walking away from them without a word. He was a pretty good driver for his age, and he was incredibly intense. He crashed once somewhere and I trotted up to the window to inquire if he was OK. He completely ignored me glaring at the dashboard until I got in his face, told him who I was and he was going to damned well respond or I was going to drag his ass out of the car for a better look. This revelation rated a piercing stare from those blue eyes, and: ”Yeah, I’m OK”.
BTW, Newman was one of the first drivers to wear a refrigerated helmet during races in very hot climates, where temperatures inside enclosed cars went up dramatically. The helmet had refrigerated vanes in it, connected to a compressor with refrigerant in it located behind the seat. Cooled venous blood across the scalp and drivers said they were quite comfy in 140 degrees.
But I digress.
The interesting portion of this story is how CART progressed to becoming exactly what they rejected from USAC in 1979. They simply thought they were so powerful they had become bulletproof. Storm clouds started gathering in 1991 when the head of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George approached the CART Board of Directors with numerous complaints form the teams exactly as CART did with USAC in 1979, and was told to buzz off. He did exactly that, establishing the Indy Racing League (IRL), an organization CART naturally did everything in their power to demolish.
But it wasn’t to be. The IRL progressively edged them out by cutting costs and pleasing the owners. CART eventually lost their sponsorship from PPG and tire sponsorship from Goodyear and teams defected en-masse. CART hung in there, establishing a competing series “Champ Cars”, which quickly fizzled and went under in 2008 after several embarrassingly miserable seasons. The Indianapolis Racing League now runs races all over the world, in direct competition with Formula One for the World Championship of Drivers.
F1 is a billion dollar business. They call it the “Formula One Circus” and that’s an apt term. Bernie Ecclestone runs that circus with an iron hand. The amount of money involved in F1 is truly staggering. The number of rabid fans thereof dwarfs Indy Car. My personal opinion its that the greatest drivers of all time came out of F1. Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, Graham Hill, Denny Hulme, Michael Schumacher. Several Americans have tried their luck in F1 and most have failed, most notably Michael Andretti. Off the top of my head the only two Americans that ever made much of a dent in F1 were Dan Gurney and the late Phil Hill, an absolutely memorable gentleman with an amazing career. I was able to sit down and converse with him for a while at Laguna Seca a number of years ago. He was racing royalty.
Formula one cars run strictly on road courses and street races. I was in the pits at the Detroit Grand Prix in 1982. I lost some hearing as I had neglected to bring earplugs. I chatted up Nikki Lauda and bumped into old man Ferrari at some point. The F1 cars rarely pass each other once they get started, as the track is narrow. They are high tech in the extreme. The driver basically controls the computer that drives the car, a very dicey situation at speed as Senna abruptly found out. Conversely, Indy cars run on both oval tracks and road racing circuits and there is much passing on both.
In the 16 years or so I was with CART, I stood on tracks all over the world, Mexico City, Japan, Surfer’s Paradise Australia, Vancouver. All over the famous tracks in America: Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, Laguna Beach, California, Streets of Long Beach, Atlanta Speedway, Mid-Ohio road circuit, Phoenix International Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and many others. I knew the Unsers, the Andrettis, Mansell, Fittipaldi and many others quite well. I never heard of any of the current crop of drivers and I really don’t follow it any more, which leads me to the interesting philosophical question: Is “car” racing a sport or an exhibition?
A complex answer. I think that strictly amateur racing is a sport. The speeds are limited. The amount of money each non-professional driver is willing or capable of putting into it is pretty limited so the cars are more or less evenly matched and driving skills really matter.
In Indy Cars, and most especially in Formula One, the amount of money team sponsors are willing to put into it is virtually unlimited, and that money buys a huge advantage. Teams like Pensky and Ganassi can put incredible amounts of money to purchase infinitesimally small increases in speed that the minor teams simply can’t afford. And those teams can afford the most skilled drivers. Those little improvements are just enough to consistently win.
So, it’s my humble opinion, having had a lot of experience watching them, that the money cars will always win all other factors remaining equal. That isn’t to say that drivers aren’t very athletic, have great instincts, reflexes and such. But in the end, it’s the car that pulls away from the pack if it has the technology to do so.
And another fact is that money talks very loudly in many other areas of racing as well. Drivers sign strict contracts inducing them to become indentured servants of sponsors. To be seen in uniform frequently on TV hawking potato chips or auto equipment.
There have not been many female drivers on the Indy Car circuit (none in Formula 1). I knew a few of them in the 80s and 90s, took care of Janet Guthrie after a crash. She was a low key, austere woman who worked pretty hard to compete against the men, a tough proposition on many levels. Lyn St. James was a bit more of a self styled celebrity than a technical driver and she worked that position hard with the media. Both of these women are doing motivational speaking I hear. None of them ever hit the top rung.
The latest female driver, Danika Patrick is a pretty good driver (driving in competition since she was a pre-teen) and drives for a big money team. Her marketing strategy is fairly typical, but with the female twist. ANYTHING to get media exposure is fair game, and for females that usually mean exposing as much of their bodies they can get away with. In addition to the usual sponsor crap, a perusal of “images” on Google will show her in various seductive positions in varying degrees of undress.
The only equalizer is mechanical misadventure, which doesn’t respect money or technology. In 1981 Al Unser drove the first ground effects car at Indy, a phenomenon that allowed much faster cornering. He was two laps ahead of the pack in the last few laps; an easy win, when a three-dollar seal in the rear end blew and the underside caught fire. That was it. Danika Patrick gets a lot of “exposure” (on many levels) and her big money cars blow up just like the rest of them.
See some photos at: