Race No. 14
Wet and Wild in Wisconsin
Zanardi moves closer to Championship in Rain-delayed Texaco/Havoline 200
By Peter Burke
©1997 SpeedCenter Internet Publishing, Inc.
The weekend started with light rain on Friday morning, but all that was forgotten in the afternoon when the PacWest boys put their cars onto the front row of the provisional grid for Sunday's race. Saturday, practice was even faster in cloudy but dry conditions at Road America. Both Patrick drivers were setting the pace then, but as the final qualifying session approached, the rain did, too.
In a slight drizzle, pit lane was eerily quiet during the session. It was too dry to really test rain tires, but it was too wet to go fast on slicks. Drivers sat in their cars, waiting under umbrellas and tarps. The clock kept ticking, the rain kept coming down slowly, and at the end of the session nothing had changed from the provisional grid. A pretty anticlimactic pole session was washed out as the skies opened up on Mo as he was on the cell phone with his boss. The media fled to the tarps covering the team areas and ultimately into their cars to head to a dryer place, and fireman 'Turtle' told all remaining at the scene of the celebrations that he's the guy bringing good luck to the team.
Sunday warmup was the moment of truth for the new Goodyear rain tire, an improved design of the tire that was outclassed by the grooved Firestones at Portland earlier this season. Laptimes in the light rain were spread apart so much, though, that it was hard to tell who would really be fast in the afternoon if it should continue to rain.
And continue to rain it did. The grid was a shallow lake - umbrellas, tarps and rain tents everywhere, even the driver introduction on a flatbed truck was canceled due to the lack of an audience willing to sit in the rain on the small grandstands along the start finish line. Somewhere around turn 5 people started to play mud football, and when the delay of the race was announced the media fled the grid to find shelter in the media center, drying out cameras, lenses, bodies. Hot coffee was in more demand than the video feed of the Dodge Neon race, which was started early to dry up the track. After one Neon had rolled over in the gravel trap in turn 12 and several others had done their darndest to throw mud onto the track in turn 8, the rain finally started to move out. The Neon's were called off the track and the CART race was started when ESPN came online. Half the audience had left already - Chicago and Minneapolis are a few hours away, and with a race starting at 4:45pm, an expected slow 'wet race,' plus the usual traffic jam leaving the track, there was little reason to keep freezing in the rain. Many spectators asked themselves how good these fancy rain tires really are - aren't they supposed to go 170+ mph? How many F1 races have been delayed due to rain? Do they run on different tires or are CART cars that much faster?
The race started with a crash in turn 1 (Salles lost it, Tracy got collected and ended up sticking his helmet in the Wisconsin mud when the car landed on it's top). Apparently it was still too wet for some of our professional drivers. After a few laps of high speed vacuum drying, the suction effect of the downforce-creating underbodies of these cars turned the track too dry for the fancy rain tires. Andretti was the first to swap back to a set of cold tires without grooves. Three miles into the next lap he lost control and he lost his title chances, digging into the gravel in Canada corner.
The resulting full course yellow (why full course?) caused a real rush to the pits and everyone else decided to follow Andretti's good example and put on slicks. Dario Franchitti lasted only one turn - losing it under yellow in turn one, trying an impossible and illegal pass on Blundell. The racing fever must have been in control at that moment, and Carl back in the pits had nothing left but to throw away his headset in disbelief.
Restart then saw PJ get into Hiro when a tight pack of cars ran into turn 1 after a very late green flag, and in the rear of the field it got a little too tight. More yellow laps to drag Hiro's ride out of the mud.
Restart again - this time everyone takes it easy and the show finally picks up speed. In turn 5, Gualter Salles got into Parker, his second contact of the day, leaving a second car sidelined. Gulater continued on. Later he got together with Michel Jourdain in the same corner, taking out that car too - and again he continued on. The rookie is making real progress in the durability department. Still, Andretti's record of 17 contacts at Vancouver a few years ago was never challenged this weekend.
Contacts did happen, though. Raul Boesel and Andre Ribeiro produced an all-Brazilian spin-off in turn one, going off at some serious speed this time. Whatever made Raul's back turn around at this speed will probably never be known. Andre walked back to the pits giving the fans the thumbs-up, as if the wreck was some great piece of work. He actually had nothing to do with it - all credit ought to go to Raul who collected whatever got into his way.
In the meantime the track got pretty dry - and Max Papis learned to drive on two wheels. Getting together with Jimmy Vasser in T5. No full course yellow, both cars continue, although Jimmy spends some extra time in the pits having his suspension bent back to normal.
Moments later the Jourdain/Salles incident - the next yellow. At the restart, Jimmy Vasser puts serious pressure on Arnd Meier, trying to gain back ground. Arnd wants to help the champion or just get out of the way fast, taking turn 14 extra fast - so fast he goes off at high speed, late after the apex. No friction in the slushy grass means the car arrives at the guardrail at full speed. Crunch - and the Lola shows it's true features: displaying perfect balance, it gets elevated by a flexing guardrail, spins in midair and clears the barrier completely, carrying over good speed to scare half the fans off the small wooden storm fence by it's still unbroken approach, while the drunk half of the fans leaning on that fence got really big eyes, then grabbed for another Hasseroeder Pilsener in their coolers. The Lola stopped safely in the grass and Meier climbed out to have his big moment on Eurosport Television. Das Crash of Meier didn't even bring out a caution - nothing left to clear off the track.
Somewhere in a corner closer to Canada than the others, Greg Moore decided to make a move for the Championship by moving around Rahal. He got around the blue/white beer can design car so weel that he also had to park it really close to Canada, in the gravel outside of Canada Corner.
Full-Course Yellow again, and Zanardi beats Blundell out of the pits for the lead (those are the two guys who had been in front while the others in back caused all the trouble). With a good portion of the field eliminated, the attention now shifted to the fight for the lead. Only occasionally did the fast leaders have to weave around traffic like Charlie Nearburg, who seemed to be experiencing throttle linkage problems again: his car's trap speed was about 40mph off the pace in the woods following the famous 'kink' - lack of pedal travel? Or a car too scary to drive? But he brought it home, unlike some more experienced stars...
With three laps to go, Mark Blundell's day was over with some big fire out the back of his car - officially his reason for dnf is listed as 'off course,' and I am sure Mercedes-Benz won't ask to have that looked into. Another great run for him again, but he had simply too many dnf's this season to be a factor. Zanardi, now in front with a solid lead, drove the race home from there. Somewhere in the back people still pushed for postitions, leaving Bryan Herta parked in the grass on the last lap. Maybe he spun on his own - only some diehard, rain-proof fans will know that one for sure.
Notable arrivals at the finish line were Juan Fangio II in tenth place sill on the lead lap, and top Lola driver Richie Hearn in ninth place.
Then the Zanardi's trademark donuts in turn 5 - the previously unexpected exhuberance had now been converted into a planned PR stunt, because in victory circle the Target boys had a box of donuts ready for a press photo. It looked cool, though, making even the mud football players down near turn 5 call a time-out to enjoy some action.
The championship following this event will be a chase for Alex, who so far only dnf'd one race. For his pursuers to have a chance, he needs to drop out at least twice, having a3 point lead after Road America. However, the next two races are events he dominated in '96 and the last race is a superspeedway similar to the one he just won his first oval race on a few weeks ago. Can he be stopped?
There was no traffic jam leaving the race, because half the fans who stayed were trying to get their cars up some slimy, muddy slopes, while throwing dirt in futile wheel spins. The mud-football players were still active, dreaming of the upcoming first Packer game.
Biggest disappointment of the weekend: the largest grill in the world was not present anymore, after feeding thousands of brats to hungry CART fans in previous races....