Race No. 14
Wet and Wild in Wisconsin
Zanardi moves closer to Championship in Rain-delayed Texaco/Havoline200
By Peter Burke
©1997 SpeedCenter Internet Publishing, Inc.
The weekend started with light rain on Friday morning, but all thatwas forgotten in the afternoon when the PacWest boys put their carsonto the front row of the provisional grid for Sunday's race.Saturday, practice was even faster in cloudy but dry conditions atRoad America. Both Patrick drivers were setting the pace then, but asthe final qualifying session approached, the rain did, too.
In a slight drizzle, pit lane was eerily quiet during the session. Itwas too dry to really test rain tires, but it was too wet to go faston slicks. Drivers sat in their cars, waiting under umbrellas andtarps. The clock kept ticking, the rain kept coming down slowly, andat the end of the session nothing had changed from the provisionalgrid. A pretty anticlimactic pole session was washed out as the skiesopened up on Mo as he was on the cell phone with his boss. The mediafled to the tarps covering the team areas and ultimately into theircars to head to a dryer place, and fireman 'Turtle' told allremaining at the scene of the celebrations that he's the guy bringinggood 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 groovedFirestones at Portland earlier this season. Laptimes in the lightrain were spread apart so much, though, that it was hard to tell whowould 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 aflatbed truck was canceled due to the lack of an audience willing tosit in the rain on the small grandstands along the start finish line.Somewhere around turn 5 people started to play mud football, and whenthe delay of the race was announced the media fled the grid to findshelter in the media center, drying out cameras, lenses, bodies. Hotcoffee 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 hadrolled over in the gravel trap in turn 12 and several others had donetheir darndest to throw mud onto the track in turn 8, the rainfinally started to move out. The Neon's were called off the trackand the CART race was started when ESPN came online. Half theaudience had left already - Chicago and Minneapolis are a few hoursaway, and with a race starting at 4:45pm, an expected slow 'wetrace,' plus the usual traffic jam leaving the track, there was littlereason to keep freezing in the rain. Many spectators asked themselveshow good these fancy rain tires really are - aren't they supposed togo 170+ mph? How many F1 races have been delayed due to rain? Do theyrun on different tires or are CART cars that much faster?
The race started with a crash in turn 1 (Salles lost it, Tracy gotcollected and ended up sticking his helmet in the Wisconsin mud whenthe car landed on it's top). Apparently it was still too wet forsome of our professional drivers. After a few laps of high speedvacuum drying, the suction effect of the downforce-creatingunderbodies of these cars turned the track too dry for the fancy raintires. Andretti was the first to swap back to a set of cold tireswithout grooves. Three miles into the next lap he lost control and helost his title chances, digging into the gravel in Canada corner.
The resulting full course yellow (why full course?) caused a realrush to the pits and everyone else decided to follow Andretti's goodexample and put on slicks. Dario Franchitti lasted only one turn -losing it under yellow in turn one, trying an impossible and illegalpass on Blundell. The racing fever must have been in control at thatmoment, and Carl back in the pits had nothing left but to throw awayhis headset in disbelief.
Restart then saw PJ get into Hiro when a tight pack of cars ran intoturn 1 after a very late green flag, and in the rear of the field itgot a little too tight. More yellow laps to drag Hiro's ride out ofthe mud.
Restart again - this time everyone takes it easy and the show finallypicks up speed. In turn 5, Gualter Salles got into Parker, hissecond contact of the day, leaving a second car sidelined. Gulatercontinued on. Later he got together with Michel Jourdain in the samecorner, taking out that car too - and again he continued on. Therookie is making real progress in the durability department. Still,Andretti's record of 17 contacts at Vancouver a few years ago wasnever challenged this weekend.
Contacts did happen, though. Raul Boesel and Andre Ribeiro producedan all-Brazilian spin-off in turn one, going off at some seriousspeed this time. Whatever made Raul's back turn around at this speedwill probably never be known. Andre walked back to the pits givingthe 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 toRaul who collected whatever got into his way.
In the meantime the track got pretty dry - and Max Papis learned todrive on two wheels. Getting together with Jimmy Vasser in T5. Nofull course yellow, both cars continue, although Jimmy spends someextra time in the pits having his suspension bent back to normal.
Moments later the Jourdain/Salles incident - the next yellow. At therestart, Jimmy Vasser puts serious pressure on Arnd Meier, trying togain back ground. Arnd wants to help the champion or just get out ofthe way fast, taking turn 14 extra fast - so fast he goes off at highspeed, late after the apex. No friction in the slushy grass means thecar arrives at the guardrail at full speed. Crunch - and the Lolashows it's true features: displaying perfect balance, it getselevated by a flexing guardrail, spins in midair and clears thebarrier completely, carrying over good speed to scare half the fansoff the small wooden storm fence by it's still unbroken approach,while the drunk half of the fans leaning on that fence got really bigeyes, then grabbed for another Hasseroeder Pilsener in their coolers.The Lola stopped safely in the grass and Meier climbed out to havehis big moment on Eurosport Television. Das Crash of Meier didn'teven bring out a caution - nothing left to clear off the track.
Somewhere in a corner closer to Canada than the others, Greg Mooredecided 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 alsohad to park it really close to Canada, in the gravel outside ofCanada Corner.
Full-Course Yellow again, and Zanardi beats Blundell out of the pitsfor the lead (those are the two guys who had been in front while theothers in back caused all the trouble). With a good portion of thefield eliminated, the attention now shifted to the fight for thelead. Only occasionally did the fast leaders have to weave aroundtraffic like Charlie Nearburg, who seemed to be experiencing throttlelinkage problems again: his car's trap speed was about 40mph off thepace in the woods following the famous 'kink' - lack of pedaltravel? Or a car too scary to drive? But he brought it home, unlikesome more experienced stars...
With three laps to go, Mark Blundell's day was over with some bigfire out the back of his car - officially his reason for dnf islisted as 'off course,' and I am sure Mercedes-Benz won't ask to havethat looked into. Another great run for him again, but he had simplytoo many dnf's this season to be a factor. Zanardi, now in front witha solid lead, drove the race home from there. Somewhere in the backpeople still pushed for postitions, leaving Bryan Herta parked in thegrass 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 tenthplace sill on the lead lap, and top Lola driver Richie Hearn in ninthplace.
Then the Zanardi's trademark donuts in turn 5 - the previouslyunexpected exhuberance had now been converted into a planned PRstunt, because in victory circle the Target boys had a box of donutsready for a press photo. It looked cool, though, making even the mudfootball players down near turn 5 call a time-out to enjoy someaction.
The championship following this event will be a chase for Alex, whoso far only dnf'd one race. For his pursuers to have a chance, heneeds to drop out at least twice, having a3 point lead after RoadAmerica. However, the next two races are events he dominated in '96and the last race is a superspeedway similar to the one he just wonhis first oval race on a few weeks ago. Can he be stopped?
There was no traffic jam leaving the race, because half the fans whostayed were trying to get their cars up some slimy, muddy slopes,while throwing dirt in futile wheel spins. The mud-football playerswere still active, dreaming of the upcoming first Packer game.
Biggest disappointment of the weekend: the largest grill in theworld was not present anymore, after feeding thousands of brats tohungry CART fans in previous races....