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Tuesday, August 7
Spins in practice caused concern
By Robin Miller

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indy Racing League's 10th event of 2001 will be staged this weekend at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. But whether the 1.5-mile oval is safe enough for 22 Indy cars competing at 215 mph appears to be a very pertinent question.

Between patching and grinding, the track has developed a wicked, bumpy surface that caused IRL point leader Sam Hornish to hit the wall and veteran Buzz Calkins to spin out during a test last Friday.

And now Kentucky Speedway is scrambling to make the track raceable by Friday's first practice period, while IRL management is taking steps to give its drivers more downforce.

"The race track is rough and it's covered with a variety of surface types so the Kentucky people are in the process of putting down a sealer known as Rino Patch and they're making it two grooves wide through the corners," explained Brian Barnhart, IRL vice president of operations.

"We're going to start with a 12-degree rear wing instead of the six-degree wing we ran last year and that will add 260 pounds of downforce. There's a little uncertainly but it's the only thing we could do and I feel a lot better about it than I did last Friday night."

The alarming part of last Friday's incidents were the fact both drivers were warming up when they lost control

"I'm on the conservative side at getting up to speed and I only ran four laps before she snapped sideways," said Calkins, the IRL's initial co-champion in 1996. "The car was bouncing all over the place and getting so much wheelspin that my dashboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree.

"It made the old Milwaukee mile look like a calm pond."

Andy Brown, who engineers Hornish for the Pennzoil Panther team, knew something wasn't right when his driver lost control running 30 mph slower than he qualified a year ago.

"Sam spun twice and hit the wall going less than 180 mph and he doesn't spin, he's got very good car control," said Brown. "They've managed to create four completely different track surfaces -- all within 150 yards of Turns 1 and 2.

"It's very bumpy and it changes the grip level without any warning."

Initially, the concerns of Calkins, Hornish and their engineers fell on deaf ears. "The attitude of the track workers irritated me because it bordered on arrogance and they couldn't have cared less about listening to me," said Calkins, who recently completed his MBA in business from Northwestern.

"But the IRL showed proper concern because Brian hopped on a helicopter and came down to check things out."

Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Cassis claims last Friday was the first sign of trouble.

"We had IRL cars on the track a week before and ran hundreds of laps with no problems but, obviously, we don't want to take any chances so we're putting down the sealer and working day and night to get it right," said Cassis, who expects a crowd of 45,000 to 50,000 for Sunday's race.

"Is it perfect? Of course not because in this climate it's a freeze and thaw situation and that's rough on the track. It moves every day. But I think we've cured our problems with this smooth, adhesive sealer."

But an original member of the IRL medical staff disagrees.

"I've been associated with the IRL since it began and I believe they've always tried to take the lead in safety," said John Miller, a paramedic who has been working with IRL Medical Director Henry Bock for 19 years.

"But what I saw the other day was very upsetting. I hope I'm wrong but that track is not ready for a race this weekend. It's not safe and, in my heart, this sealer is just a bandage on a time bomb."

David Cripps, who engineers Calkins' car, said the irregular surfaces and bumpy track effectively lost the contact patch with the tire.

"The bottom line is to get grip you need rubber on the track and hopefully this sealant will provide a little margin for error," said Cripps. "I do think that first practice session will be a bit of a nail-biter."

Firestone's Al Speyer said his company would take a couple sets of tires to Kentucky.

"We're concerned like everyone else but not about our tires. When they're not touching the track it's hard to get grip," said Speyer. "Friday should be interesting but hopefully everything will work out."

Calkins said his feelings have changed since hearing of the quick fixes.

"I left the track after only four laps last Friday being hesitant and a little wary," he said. "But I think adding rear wing and that sealant should be sufficient and solve 80 percent of the problem."

Earlier this season, CART canceled its race at Texas because drivers experienced space-aged G-loading. But, unlike CART, the IRL did enough testing at Kentucky and was able to discover the problem prior to race weekend.

Barnhart said postponing the race was not an option.

"Our only options were to go to Aug. 19 and that would give us three races in a row or move it Sept. 9 and that would give us four races in a row. We won't postpone this race unless something really drastic surprises us."

Miller, who resigned from his IRL job over the weekend, remains concerned about the safety of the drivers.

"I hope I'm wrong," he said. "For everybody's sake."

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