Flashback: 5 Reasons the CART Fed-Ex Series Lost out to the Indy Racing League
Heading into 1999, the CART Fed-Ex Series was riding high. CART seemed to have gotten the best of the open-wheel split three years earlier. 1998 was a banner year, as 28 cars were at every race that year, and the series had nearly all the best drivers, tracks, and fans in the open-wheel world.
Meanwhile, the Indy Racing League was still struggling, with subpar equipment, a lack of fans, and mostly second-tier drivers (1998 had only two drivers who had won a CART race: Scott Goodyear and Arie Luyendyk).
Despite the losses of Alex Zanardi and Bobby Rahal, 1999 was looking to be another great year. However, over the next three seasons, a series of negative events hit CART so hard that teams, drivers, and tracks left the series, and by 2008, the series was no more, the IRL was on top and open-wheel was unified once again.
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In order to reach the highest success, it is important that all of your top drivers are at every race. When drivers get hurt, it hurts the product on the track.
1999 saw a ton of injuries to several top drivers, which affected the fan interest towards the series. Al Unser Jr. missed two races after a broken leg at Homestead, Christian Fittipaldi missed five races after a broken leg, Adrian Fernandez missed four races after a fractured hand in Detroit, Mark Blundell missed eight races with a broken vertebrae, and Patrick Carpentier missed one race following a crash at Detroit.
All five drivers were previous race winners, and all were largely popular and consistent racers. Being forced to use substitute drivers who weren't as well-known hurt the series that had been largely injury-free the previous season.
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Racing always has the potential for danger and tragedy. CART had largely avoided such tragedy for years, but the end of the 1999 season saw major tragedy that affected the series for years afterward.
Gonzalo Rodriguez was an up-and-coming driver who had just made his debut for Penske Racing. The race at Laguna Seca was another chance for Rodriguez to prove himself, but a practice crash ended badly.
A 140 mph impact into the Corkscrew corner killed Rodriguez, which may have been prevented if there had been more barriers in front of that wall to absorb the impact.
The series was robbed of its brightest young star at California in the last race of the season. Canadian Greg Moore was all set to become the newest member of the great Penske team in 2000, and was a very popular driver in the garage and in the stands.
Already suffering from a hand injury that nearly forced him out of the car, Moore crashed on Lap 9, sliding through the grass and hitting the backstretch infield wall with the top of the car at about 200 mph.
Moore died before the race had ended, and all post-race festivities were cancelled. Moore's death led to the paving of the California backstretch, and the requirement of HANS devices for the drivers, both measures that could have lessened the impact on Greg Moore.
Helio Castroneves arguably got his career saved when he was tapped to replace Moore at Penske.
The Indy 500
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The one thing Indy Racing League president Tony George was able to hang onto in the open-wheel split was his crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500.
By 2000, George had been able to generate some buzz, but the lack of quality driving talent kept the series and race down. That all changed in 2000, when the glow of the 500 became too much for CART teams to ignore any longer.
Owners, drivers, and sponsors wanted the ability to participate in the greatest race, and the anger with the IRL was overcome. Al Unser Jr. was the first to jump ship, leaving Penske Racing and CART for the IRL and a chance to compete for another Indy 500.
Chip Ganassi entered Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser in the race, and while Montoya dominated the race, the door was open for more CART drivers and teams to attend Indy.
Ganassi, Team Green and Penske then ran the 500 in 2001, won by Penske's Castroneves. It was the start of the exodus to the IRL for many teams, but CART was still on top at this point.
Canceling the 2001 Texas Race
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Despite all the events of the previous year plus, CART was still the lead open-wheel series in the country, until the 2001 Firestone Firehawk 600. CART was trying to piggyback on the success of IRL oval races, but there were speed concerns from the start.
Because CART cars had more horsepower, it was expected that too much g-force would be created. This became true as the practices and qualifying went on, as crashes at incredible speeds, and reports of a multitude of illnesses in the car came to light.
Drivers were losing consciousness, suffering from vertigo, dizziness, disorientation, a loss of peripheral vision, and limited reaction time from double the g-loads that most people can stand.
CART tried to slow the cars down, but it became too late, so the race was canceled. It was a black eye that the series never recovered from. The resulting lawsuit and bad publicity was the big nail in the coffin for CART as a viable series.
The 2001 Germany Race
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If the Texas debacle didn't finish off CART, then the 2001 race in Germany did. The race at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany was going to go off without a hitch until 9/11 hit. The decision was made, supposedly before other leagues, to continue with the race.
The series took a lot of heat for racing since nearly everyone else postponed games that weekend. CART did their best to be conscientious of the situation, renaming the race The American Memorial and matching the prize fund in a donation to the victims of the attacks.
What happened near the end of the race put CART out of mind for good. Alex Zanardi, two-time CART champion who was back in the series after leaving Formula 1, was coming out of the pits when he was struck on the track by Alex Tagliani.
Tagliani was going about 200 mph, and the crash forced Zanardi to have both legs amputated.
The gruesome nature of the crash was the final straw for CART. The exodus to the IRL was on, and CART never had more than 19 full-time cars again. Fed-Ex left after 2002, the series went bankrupt the following year and changed its name to Champ Car.
By 2008, the series was absorbed by the IRL, and open-wheel racing was whole again. The series that was so sure they would win out in the open-wheel split beat itself and the underdog IRL ended up on top.