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Cautionary Note to Speed Record

Auto racing: Drivers say they feel G-forces they haven't felt before as Texas Speedway becomes fastest in NASCAR.

April 06, 2002|ED HINTON | ORLANDO SENTINEL

FORT WORTH — Texas Motor Speedway on Friday became the fastest track on the Winston Cup tour--not as fast as NASCAR officials had feared, but enough to make the drivers tense.

Bill Elliott won the pole for Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500 with a lap at 194.224 mph in a Dodge. That topped Elliott's 191.542 mph at Atlanta on March 8 as the highest qualifying speed of the season.

NASCAR had brought carburetor restrictor plates to the speedway, just in case speeds got too close to 200 mph on the 1.5-mile oval, where new pavement escalated speeds from last year because of improved grip through the turns. But plates won't be mandated for Sunday.

Drivers said they were feeling stresses through the corners that they'd never felt before, anywhere.

"There's no track like this racetrack," said Elliott Sadler, who qualified second in a Ford at 193.071.

Added 25-year veteran Ricky Rudd, third fastest at 193.016 in a Ford: "There's as much stress on the cars and tires as I've ever felt since I've been racing."

As one of only a few active drivers who raced in the pre-restrictor plate days at Daytona and Talladega before 1988, Rudd said that "running around here at 193 or 194 feels faster than 210 or 212 did back then at Daytona."

Elliott, who holds the all-time NASCAR qualifying record of 212.809, set in 1987 at Talladega, reemerged as the laid-back maestro of skyrocketing speeds. "I can't remember that far back," he cracked about the sensation of 212 vs. 194. "I don't know if I feel the speed any differently than I did 15 years ago. These cars are stuck [grip the track] so much better."

It's the grip, Rudd said, creating extraordinary G-forces that threaten to be extremely taxing on both cars and drivers come Sunday. Drivers noted that their crews' data retrieval systems showed 3-G loading through the corners--more than they experience anywhere else.

A year ago here, CART drivers refused to race after they experienced dizziness and blackouts through the corners, at more than 220 mph in their lighter, open-wheel cars.

"I think they were pulling up to 6 Gs in the corners," Rudd said. "We're nowhere near that extreme, but it's very, very physical inside the race car.

"Imagine the baddest, meanest roller coaster you've ever ridden in your life. Imagine the corner load that you took in that roller coaster where you slid to the other side of the car you're riding in. That's probably the best way to describe it. When you go into the corner, if you didn't have your seat fixed up with the right-side head rest, it would probably snap your neck."

The dazzling, $250-million facility in Texas--called "that big monster" even by the man who built it, owner Bruton Smith--has been star-crossed since the day it opened in 1997, to a storm of driver protests over the weird, dipsy-doodle configuration of the track.

Since then, nearly $7 million has been spent, trying to get the track right.

Drivers have grumbled all along that amid all the opulence--nearly a mile-long span of luxury sky boxes, a nine-story "Speedway Club" and a 10-story condominium complex overlooking the track, plus five helicopter pads in the infield for VIP transport--Texas officials forgot to build a viable racetrack. Originally, the "transitions" from flat straightaways to banked turns were too abrupt, and the exits to the corners--especially the fourth turn--were so narrow the drivers felt as if they were hurtling into funnels.

"You come through that fourth turn thinking, 'I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm ohhh!'" Sterling Marlin said, succinctly for all concerned, in 1997.

Then in '98, water began seeping through the track surface in the turns, unpredictably, so that drivers found themselves slipping and sliding without warning. So, later that year, Smith spent $4.5 million reconfiguring the track nearer to drivers' liking and revamping the drainage system.

After that, dips developed beneath both sets of turns, because of settling of the earth around the two tunnels that allow traffic access to the infield. So last summer, $2.5 million was spent to put down steel and concrete bedding between the track surface and the underlying tunnels, then the whole track was repaved.

It's now so fast it's harrowing, but "they've done an excellent job resurfacing," Rudd said. "The cars like the racetrack a lot better than they did.

"I guess the third or fourth time they got it right," Rudd concluded. "Now we just have to wait and see if we can race on it."

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Ed Hinton covers motor sports for the Orlando Sentinel.

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