TEARIN' UP TEXAS
Texas Motor Speedway officials are moving ahead with plans to rip
up, redesign and rebuild their misbegotten track near Fort
Worth. After 43 cars wrecked during the Texas 500 weekend of
April 4-5, NASCAR officials strongly suggested that Winston Cup
racing would not return to the year-old facility unless the
track was radically revamped.
"I've had nine engineers in there," says Bruton Smith, chairman
of the track's parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc. "We're
attacking the situation with a vengeance." That's quite a
turnabout for a man who, during the speedway's inaugural Winston
Cup weekend in 1997, dismissed criticisms of the track and
suggestions that it be rebuilt as "bulls---."
Drivers want smoother transitions into and out of all four turns
plus a wider racing surface so there is more than one groove to
run in. Turn 4, in particular, has become the most hated turn on
the NASCAR circuit--racers say it needs a wider arc so the
outside retaining wall doesn't jut out almost in front of them
as they exit the turn--and Turn 1 was the scene of a 13-car
pileup last year and a 10-car wreck earlier this month. There
was further cause for alarm on the part of drivers during Texas
500 qualifying when it was discovered that water was seeping
through the track's surface.
"We're going all around the track, and every little bump we find
is going to be taken out," says Smith. "Since we're making so
many changes, we're going to totally repave the track. We're
going to use a less porous asphalt mix to help eliminate
seepage, and we've already found the water drainage problem."
Racers wonder aloud how the track could have been so
ill-constructed in the first place, while other new ovals on the
Winston Cup tour--in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and even Motegi,
Japan--are virtual racers' dreams. NASCAR has no set guidelines
for track design or construction. "It's really heartbreaking
when you spend $250 million and find professional screwup,"
Smith says. But we're curing that."
During the most recent race weekend, Texas Motor Speedway was
selling T-shirts bearing this arrogant message to drivers: SHUT
UP AND RACE. Now speedway officials are doing what Dale
Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, demanded after the
April 5 race: "Give us something to race on and we'll shut up."
PLUGGING ONE IN AT LE MANS
"Environmentally friendly, high-performance cars" has long been
an oxymoron. But that may change in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on
June 6-7. U.S. sports car impresario Don Panoz is entering an
experimental car--the Panoz Q9--that is partially powered by a
260-cell battery pack. The use of the battery will not only
reduce emissions and increase fuel economy, but it should also
boost performance of the car's 6.0-liter gasoline engine by as
much as 150 horsepower.
With the additional power source--the battery pack is
automatically recharged by the energy dissipated from
braking--Panoz hopes the new car will be able to make fewer pit
stops, a major advantage in a 24-hour race.
Fully electric cars are impractical for most purposes because of
the long periods they must sit while the batteries recharge. "By
running the 24 Hours of Le Mans [with the aid of] a single set
of batteries, we hope to establish the credibility of this
technology," says Panoz. "We believe our system will show that
environmentally responsible vehicles don't have to sacrifice
New Chicago Oval
SAFETY FIRST IN TRACK DESIGN
Chicago Motor Speedway, scheduled to open with a CART race in
the fall of 1999, might be the most sensibly designed project
undertaken in the recent rash of track building. The best safety
feature in all of motor racing will be in place there: flexible
retaining walls that should greatly reduce injuries to drivers.
The one-mile Chicago oval also will be low-banked and wide (75
feet, compared with the usual 50 to 60), which should produce
the side-by-side racing that fans love.
Construction will begin this summer around the horse racing
track at Sportsman's Park in Cicero, Ill., with new grandstands
that will increase seating capacity from 11,000 to 67,000 for
either form of racing. Though the project's primary developer,
Chip Ganassi, is a CART team owner, he says he will try to lure
all forms of motor racing. "Everybody in CART wants to get back
to a wide, one-mile oval where they can race two and three
abreast and not worry about superhigh speeds," says Ganassi.
Indeed, many NASCAR team owners and drivers are fed up with the
excessive speed and dangerous collisions on the high-banked
tracks that are predominant on their schedule. Truth is, Winston
Cup cars no longer need high banking to facilitate fast
cornering. When they do race on high-banked tracks, they run too
fast for comfort. Last year 13 qualifying- and race-speed
records were set in the 32 Winston Cup races.
The new wall, made of stacked tires banded together and covered
with fiber-reinforced rubber, has been used on temporary street
circuits. Rather than slamming into unyielding concrete, cars
will crash into barriers that give, yet "don't bounce you back
into traffic," says Ganassi.
COLOR PHOTO: SKIP WILLIAMS/AP DANGER ZONE Drivers hope wrecks will be less common after Texas Motor Speedway is rebuilt. [Driver climbing out of burning race car after collision]
The number of seconds that separated the fastest and the slowest
cars to qualify for the 43-car field in Monday's Goody's
Headache Powder 500 in Martinsville, Va. Three other cars failed