Stock Cars In South Africa: The 2010 Free State 500

Note that the laps of lead changes and cautions are from the broadcast, and might be a little off.

A bizarre track, a bizarre race, and a bizarre story. Here, we take a look at the 2010 Free State 500, a superspeedway race held at the Phakisa Freeway, in South Africa.

The province of Free State is in central South Africa and is one of nine provinces. Free State borders the small enclosed country of Lesotho, and contains one of South Africa’s three capitals, Bloemfontein, also the provincial capital of Free State. In 1970, the Goldfields Raceway was opened in Odendaalsrus, a town of 60,000 near the province’s second largest city, Welkom (it’s an Afrikaans/Dutch name, so the W is said as a V). The track was likely named after the area’s gold fields, or gold mines.

Goldfields Raceway was a popular circuit for national events over the years. Despite the area being famous for its depressions, Goldfields was a very flat circuit. It was fast, and could be run with little usage of the brakes, especially by open wheelers, though this sort of flat-out racing wasn’t always the best idea, as Goldfields was very famous as being a tire killer.

By 1997, the track owners were looking for more, wanting to bring American oval racing to the area, and so the old road course was demolished, and construction on a new circuit began. The new track, called the Phakisa Freeway, opened in 1999.

Phakisa-Race-Track
Credit to Topbossracing

The oval is an interesting specimen. Measuring 1.5 miles, it is kind of a mix of pre-reconfiguration Las Vegas and Pikes Peak. The track is a d-oval and is about as wide as Pikes Peak, but the banking was heavily influenced by Las Vegas’, to the point that they are almost identical. The backstretch of Phakisa is banked to 3 degrees, the turns to 12, and the d-oval to 9, a near-exact match with old Las Vegas’ banks, which were 3, 12, and 8 respectively.

Also built with the oval was a 2.636 mile road course, which also has a short course layout of a bit under two miles. The road course doesn’t use any of the banked corners. It does, however, use the oval’s pit lane as its backstretch, and crosses the oval’s backstretch on two occasions.

In 1999, its first year open, the track immediately saw a major event in MotoGP. The South African Motorcycle Grand Prix was held at Phakisa from 1999 to 2004, when it left the track due to economic issues. The oval, however, remained unused. Phakisa’s road course continued to hold all sorts of national level events, as it does today, but there were talks of actually putting the oval to use. Sarel Van Der Merwe, a legendary South African racer who even made a few NASCAR starts, was the only driver to ever lap the oval in a race car, doing so on opening weekend. He apparently was lapping it out of anger directed towards something, presumably the demolition of Goldfields, though I could never find any specifications.

 

In and of itself, stock car racing is very popular in South Africa, which has a set of dirt tracks for local events. Dirt late models and midgets frequent these circuits, and there are a couple flat asphalt ovals for superstocks and jalopies, such as what is seen in Great Britain. In 2000, an asphalt late model stock car series called SASCAR was founded, however again I could find no evidence that it ever ran the oval at Phakisa. South Africa. In 2004, a larger banked oval opened at Gosforth Park, near Johannesburg. The WesBank Raceway, a slightly banked 0.621 mile oval, is known to have held several SASCAR events. The WesBank Raceway, which also contained an external road course, was fairly popular, but unfortunately it closed in 2007 and was demolished when a local company purchased the property. SASCAR went defunct at some point before 2009.

 

With the oval at Phakisa looking like it was never going to be used, the American Speed Association, or ASA, took notice. Ever since its financial difficulties in the early 2000s, the ASA was still attempting to recover, and eyed a potential race in South Africa as a good way to bring American superspeedway influence to the country and potentially return to relevance. This ambition gave birth to the Free State 500, to be held at the Phakisa Freeway on January 31st, 2010. 21 local South Africans jumped at the chance to race at the big oval alongside other big names who had entered the race such as Geoff Bodine, Chris Wimmer, and west coast legend Rick McCray and his daughter Toni Marie. A qualifying session was held, and those who were fast enough would be permitted to race. Six of the 21 locals were given the go-ahead to race.

The race itself had been born out of an idea by Dennis Hoth, the ASA president, in September 2009. Organization had been swift, and by December 1, shipments of the cars had begun. The drivers themselves left a week or so beforehand.

 

2010 ASA TRANSCONTINENTAL VRYSTAAT FREE STATE 500 STARTING LINEUP

  1. #8 Geoffrey BODINE (USA)
  2. #96 Marc DAVIS (USA)
  3. #52 Chris WIMMER (USA)
  4. #09 John MICKEL (GBR)
  5. #F-22 Russ BLAKELEY (USA)
  6. #90 Toni Marie McCRAY (USA)
  7. #F-66 Steve CARLSON (USA)
  8. #19 Tiffany DANIELS (USA)
  9. #11 Jaco CORREIA (RSA)
  10. #97 Mark EBERT (USA)
  11. #22 Johan CRONJE (RSA)
  12. #98 Shaun RICHARDSON (AUS)
  13. #73 Gary LEWIS (USA)
  14. #68 Danie CORREIA (RSA)
  15. #55 Greg BARNHART (USA)
  16. #80 Mark SHAFFER (USA)
  17. #41 Ron NORMAN (USA)
  18. #85 Lance FENTON (USA)
  19. #20 Gugu ZULU (RSA)
  20. #61 Tim OLSON (USA)
  21. #900 Johann SPIES (RSA)
  22. #31 Dustin DUDLEY (USA)
  23. #00 Johan COETZER (RSA)
  24. #08 Rick McCRAY (USA)
  25. #88 Don UHLIR (USA)

 

The highest qualifying local was Jaco Correia, whose #11 greatly resembled Denny Hamlin’s white and purple Fedex scheme. Jaco Correia, a competitor in South African V8 Supercars, one of the most prestigious series in the country, started ninth. Businessman and hobbyist dirt tracker Johan Cronje’s #22 started 11th. Danie Correia in the #68, brother of Jaco and fellow competitor in South African V8s, started 14th. Starting 19th was the late Gugu Zulu of Cape Town, one of the country’s best rally racers. Johann Spies, a national Super Saloon class champion, started 21st in the #900, and young dirt oval racer Johan Coetzer started 23rd in the #00. Also in the field were John Mickel of Great Britain, who raced both in the ASA and in ASCAR, a stock car series which ran at the now-defunct oval in Rockingham, England, and Shaun Richardson, a Queensland, Australia native best known for his stunt work. The ASA picked up a television contract for the Free State 500 to be shown in the United States on a set of regional channels such as SportSouth, and several local South African channels were also there to broadcast the event. Most of the cars dated back to the early 2000s, with most Fords being Tauruses, most Dodges Chargers, and most Chevys Monte Carlos, though Tiffany Daniels and Shaun Richardson used relatively new-ish Toyota Camrys, and a couple of the frontrunners used Chevy Impalas.

 

Race day was extremely hot, reportedly approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the skies themselves were almost cloudless. Race attendance totalled in at about 11,000. Marc Davis got the jump and took the early lead. The grid was one car short, as Dustin Dudley had sold his engine to Johann Spies, who had blown his primary engine in practice. This left Dudley without an engine, so he was headed home. Luckily for him, the South African government had covered travel costs and lodging.

Davis led a few laps, but on lap five, Geoffrey Bodine took the lead and pulled out a decent gap. Sometime before a lap 22 debris yellow, Geoff had lost the lead to Davis. In fact, Geoff had fallen back to fourth. By this point, two cars had dropped out of the event, the #88 Chevy Monte Carlo of Don Uhlir and the #85 Dodge Charger of Lance Fenton.

Free-State-500-2-1
Credit to Raceweek; L2R: #96 Davis, #8 Bodine, #52 Wimmer, #09 Mickel

The field used this chance to pit. By series rules, the cars were only permitted to take on two tires at a time, and were not permitted to refuel during a tire stop or vice versa.

On the lap 29 restart, Marc Davis was the leader, but the mostly unsponsored #73 of Gary Lewis found a fantastic burst of speed. The two Chevrolets raced side by side through turn three, and Lewis surged ahead into the lead. Lewis led them around and to the yellow flag, as the second caution had come out for the #11 of Jaco Correia ramming the wall on entrance to turn three. Correia, of Klerksdorp, North West Province, was out of the race, but he was not hurt.

Lewis continued to lead on the lap 37 restart. A third yellow flew on or around lap 55, likely due to Steve Carlson’s car breaking down. During this run, Chris Wimmer had fallen out of the race, and Mark Shaffer had fallen out the caution before. The cavalry entered the pit lane, and on the lap 64 restart, Geoff Bodine took the lead and led until lap 75 due to a double spin by the #97 of Mark Ebert, the owner of a driving school, and the #68 of Danie Correia of Welkom. The field restarted on lap 85, and not much occurred during the brief green flag run other than the engine on the #00 of Johan Coetzer of Welkom blowing up, putting an end to the 19-year-old’s day. Caution 5 flew on lap 94 for debris, and the field pitted again.

Marc Davis took the lead during pit stops and led the field to the lap 102 restart. John Mickel got a bit of a run in turn one, but Davis surged ahead on the middle line, and Mickel was quickly freight trained. The #08 of Rick McCray then made a move and actually led a lap somewhere during the shuffle, possibly even two laps, though Davis emerged victorious again.

Caution 6 flew on lap 105 due to Mark Ebert in the #97 spinning again off of four, this time to the inside of the track. The field restarted on lap 112, and Geoff Bodine pursued the #96 of Davis from the moment the starter flew the green. On lap 119, he took the lead, but once again Davis made the outside work, and on lap 122, he took it back. Gary Lewis tried his hand at a pass, but Rick McCray, who had somewhere along the line lost a lap, made it three wide and got his lap back in the trioval coming to finish lap 122 and start lap 123. Gary Lewis took the lead in turn one on lap 123 and held it for some time. He put McCray another lap down and led until the seventh yellow on lap 145.

The field made more pit stops, and John Mickel found himself up front on the lap 154 restart. However, Australia’s Shaun Richardson took the lead on the backstretch and pulled out to a great gap, which Geoff Bodine quickly made up as if he were the star of a bad racing movie. Geoff passed Shaun around lap 157. Around this time, Johan Cronje’s engine let go, and the Welkom native would be forced to retire the car. Russ Blakeley’s #F-22 car also let go around lap 163. Blakeley had gone about 35 laps down already, having pulled his car behind the wall earlier in the event, and this would do him in. Interestingly, even after his first mechanical gremlin, Blakeley’s car had still been very fast…

Gary-Lewis-Tiff-Daniels-Johann-Spies-2-1
Credit to Raceweek; Bottom: #73 Lewis, Middle: #19 Daniels, Top: #900 Spies

Speaking of a couple of laps down, Marc Davis found himself in this situation. He had been forced to change tires under green, and it had cost him dearly. But the #96 was still quick. He was hoping for a yellow so he could get a lap back, and he got one on lap 167.

The restart flew on lap 174, but Shaun Richardson brought out the yellow on lap 176 when he blew a tire and skidded into turn one. The #98 Toyota Camry was done for the day despite not hitting anything, as Shaun had cooked the car’s clutch in his attempt to get back under way.

Bodine led on the restart on lap 182, but he found himself cutting it close on fuel. In the meantime, a massive cavalry of cars dueled one another to try and become the recipient in case Bodine ran dry. Coming to finish lap 205, Bodine’s car sputtered, and he bailed for the pit lane. Toni Marie McCray and John Mickel were the two beneficiaries, and the #90 of McCray led lap 205 and lap 206. On the white flag lap however, John Mickel in the #09 Chevrolet made a move on the outside of turn one and he made it stick. Mickel held off any further attempts by McCray to reclaim the lead, and John Mickel was the winner at day’s end.

Out of the locals, the #900 of Johann Spies was the best finisher, in fifth. Danie Correia finished 10th, and Gugu Zulu, a rally expert who had never raced on an asphalt track before, finished 11th. Johan Cronje, Johan Coetzer, and Jaco Correia failed to finish.

John-Mickel-2-1
Credit to Raceweek

 

2010 ASA TRANSCONTINENTAL VRYSTAAT FREE STATE 500 RESULTS

  1. #09 John MICKEL
  2. #90 Toni Marie McCRAY
  3. #96 Marc DAVIS
  4. #08 Rick McCRAY
  5. #900 Johann SPIES
  6. #73 Gary LEWIS
  7. #19 Tiffany DANIELS
  8. #55 Greg BARNHART (-1)
  9. #8 Geoffrey BODINE (-1)
  10. #68 Danie CORREIA (-3)
  11. #20 Gugu ZULU (-5)
  12. #97 Mark EBERT (-5)
  13. #41 Ron NORMAN (-9)
  14. #98 Shaun RICHARDSON (-31, Burnt Clutch)
  15. #22 Johan CRONJE (-52, Engine)
  16. #F-22 Russ BLAKELEY (-79, Mechanical)
  17. #61 Tim OLSON (-92, Status Unknown)
  18. #00 Johan COETZER (-119, Out)
  19. #F-66 Steve CARLSON (-153, Engine)
  20. #52 Chris WIMMER (-169, Mechanical)
  21. #11 Jaco CORREIA (-179, Crash)
  22. #80 Mark SHAFFER (-179, Out)
  23. #85 Lance FENTON (-195, Out)
  24. #88 Don UHLIR (-206, Out)
  25. #31 Dustin DUDLEY (DNS)

Known Cautions: 9
Known Lead Changes: 14
Known Leaders: #08, #09, #8, #73, #96, #98
MoV: 0.4 sec
Hard Charger: #08 Rick McCray
Purse: Apparently about $US300,000
Pole Speed: 149.938 mph

 

The intention was for a few more races to be held at the oval track. Ron Barfield, owner of the #88 and the #55, stated his intention to leave a couple of race cars behind for the South African local drivers, and a racing school was reportedly supposed to be created, however no further races were held at the oval. A planned second Free State 500 scheduled for January 2011 never went anywhere, nor did a revival in November 2012. The ASA faded away during the early 2010s, meaning it likely will not return. The loss of Gugu Zulu, who passed away in mid-2016 after descending Mt. Kilimanjaro, further hurt any possible return. However, the one race that was held was very entertaining and unique, with overtaking galore, especially on the outside line, and the drivers put on a fantastic show.

As for the track itself, national events are still going very strong at the road course, but the oval has remained dormant ever since the 25 stock cars packed up and left the track on January 31, 2010.

 

Sources:

Racingcircuits.info

“South Africa embraces V8s in 2001”, February 21, 2001 article to Motorsport.com

“Six SA drivers named to race Free State 500”, January 26, 2010 edition of IOL

“ASA Returns To South Africa For Free Satate 500 Nov. 25”, March 30, 2010 article to Raceweek Illustrated

“Florence’s Barfield on racing safari to South Africa”, January 26, 2010 edition of SCNow

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Cancelled Events

Races are very rarely called off. Usually, when races have to be ended, they’ll try their very best to get it in nonetheless. But sometimes, they must cancel, usually due to a fatal crash early on. Let’s take a look at a few of them. All of these had to be completely called off for whatever reason. No points could be salvaged from the events, and they were all declared non races. The whole event must have been cancelled to count. If one race was thrown out, I won’t include it. The races that were called off due to fatalities will be marked with asterisks.

1967: Italian F3 at Caserta*

By the time summer 1967 arrived, the Italian racing community was mourning. They`d recently lost Lorenzo Bandini, who had crashed in Monaco. To make things worse, on June 4th, Italian F3 driver Boley Pittard`s car caught fire on the grid at the start of a race at Monza. Pittard veered his car to the side to prevent a fiery pileup, but was very badly burned in the incident. He died on June 11th.

2z7iibk
Credit to GPX

Italian F3 raced on. It ran Caserta, a 2.8 mile street circuit, on June 18th. Visible from the track sidelines was Reggia di Caserta, the tallest building in Europe to be built in the 1700s.

Caserta
Credit to Theracingline (track was run clockwise)

On lap seven, backmarkers Beat Fehr and Andrea Saltari made contact on the approach to Via Domenico Mondo. The pair crashed hard, and Franco Foresti soon crashed in response. Fehr and Saltari were unhurt, but Foresti broke his leg. Fehr hopped out of the car and started to flag down drivers. After a little while, Fehr left the scene, where he came across a small field that a car had set on fire. He found some off-duty firemen and alerted them to the fire, then returned to the scene of the crash to continue flagging down drivers. During his absence, Jorg Dubler crashed, vaulting into the air and hitting two poles. Dubler was badly hurt, but was able to get out with the help of two soldiers, one of which called for medics. In the meantime, the race continued. On lap nine, Giacomo ‘Geki’ Russo blew a tire on some debris and went off. He struck Fehr and plowed into a concrete barrier. Over the next two laps, the crash collected Clay Reggazoni, Massimo Natili, Corrado Manfredini, Manfred Mohr, G.R. ‘Tiger’ Perdomi, Silvio Moser, and Maurizio Montagnani, with four drivers, Antonio Maglione, Ernesto Brambilla, Sverrir Thoroddsson, and Enzo Corti, dodging the mess. The race was eventually ended on lap 11 when Natili, who was able to drive away, drove to the pits and let officials know. At last, the race was stopped.

Three drivers died in this. Giacomo ‘Geki’ Russo, who was being courted for an F1 ride, was instantly killed when the car hit the wall, which ejected him and split the chassis in two. Geki was a rich man from Milan whose father started a successful tissue company. His family disapproved of racing, which is why he raced as Geki. Beat Fehr died on the way to the hospital, having been struck by Geki’s errant car. G.R. ‘Tiger’ Perdomi was severely injured when his car crumpled. It took 30 minutes to extricate Tiger, who died a week later. He was conscious and alert during his removal, his leg pierced by the tachometer.

Racing never returned to Caserta. Officials decided to cancel any championship aspect that year, as the points leader (Geki) was dead. Geki actually held the points lead until the finale, where Maurizio Montagnani overtook him, but neither man was crowned champion.

1973: MotoGP at Monza*

What exactly caused the events of May 20th, 1973 to turn out the way they did is debatable, but it’s believed that, during the 350cc World Motorcycle Championship (now MotoGP) race at Monza, Walter Villa’s bike had a mechanical issue in the concluding laps, spilling oil everywhere. Rider John Dodds and several journalists alerted officials to the oil, but they were told that the races would continue. Dodds pushed the issue, and was threatened with police and gave up. The field quickly moved on to the 250cc race.

Late in the 350cc race, local boy Renzo Pasolini had blown a piston and retired from the event while running up front, heavily upsetting the popular rider. He got ready for the 250cc race with every intention of riding aggressively to the front of the pack.

Entering turn one on lap one (motorcycles did not use the first chicane at Monza), Pasolini, either unaware or uncaring of the oil, fell and went into the hay bales, sending his bike bouncing along the circuit. Pasolini and Jarno Saarinen were killed in the ensuing pileup, which collected Walter Villa, Borje Jansson, Chas Mortimer, Fosco Giansanti, Hideo Kanaya, Victor Palomo, and at least two others. Pasolini had skipped most of the hay bales and struck the steel guardrail directly, and Saarinen, the defending 250cc champion, was hit in the face by Pasolini’s Harley Davidson. The race was called on lap three, and both it and the 500cc race afterwards were cancelled.

Emanuele Maugliani just barely avoided the minefield of wreckage and suffering in the crash, but was killed a few days later during a race in what is now Slovenia when he crashed and his bike flew into the crowd. Maugliani’s bike killed five spectators and injured many more.

1973: Italian Junior Racers Championship at Monza*

Fifty days after the deaths of Saarinen and Pasolini, more tragedy struck. During the Italian Junior Racers Championship 500cc race, again at Monza, again in the first corner (they still were not using the frontstretch chicane). On lap three, as the field exited the first turn, Renzo Colombini crashed into the guardrail on the track’s outside. Trying to avoid him, Vittorio Altrocchio went into the haybales on the inside of the circuit. The field panicked, and several riders went down, with the pack still bearing down on them.

Colombini struck the bare guardrail, dying instantly. Renato Galtrucco was part of the first pack that had crashed in response, and he had been struck by Carlo Chionio. Galtrucco died shortly after arrival, and Chionio seemed to be in stable condition at first, but it quickly worsened and he died some time later. It apparently took a couple minutes to find Altrocchio – he’d flown over the guardrail and gotten stuck in the tree branches, and even more amazingly was relatively uninjured. Altrocchio suffered some facial injuries, but was released a few hours later.

Motorcycle racing ditched Monza after this. It only returned in 1981, and even to this day mostly national events are held.

1990: Copa Nissan Sunny at Roca Roja*

The Copa Nissan Sunny was a one make series for the Nissan Sunny that got underway in Chile in 1990. Chile had very few major race tracks in 1990, so all but one of the races in the series were at Las Vizcachas in Santiago, the capital. The one race outside of Las Vizcachas was at Roca Roja, in Antofagasta, in the northern part of the country. J.M. Silva entered Roca Roja as the points leader, with Carlos Polanco not far behind.

Polanco started the late November race towards the front. On lap two of the race, Polanco made contact with another car and flipped. The Nissan’s door flew open, and Polanco was thrown from the car, which eventually came to a stop inverted. Polanco died shortly thereafter.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Roca Roja race was immediately cancelled, though the planned Chilean F3 race sometime later went on as intended. The Copa Nissan Sunny’s organizer assigned Silva the title and immediately shut the series down, meaning it only lasted one season. Roca Roja was also done in by the crash, as it saw very few events after 1990. A few years later, a flood struck the area, and being as Antofagasta is just north of the Atacama, it was a vicious one. Roca Roja suffered severe damage and was demolished instead of being rebuilt. It is now a landfill.

1997: Japanese Formula Three at Fuji*

October 19th, 1997. Shigekazu Wakisaka and Tom Coronel made contact while battling for the lead on lap one of the penultimate race of the Japanese F3 season in 1997 at Fuji. Wakisaka turned over, doing several rolls in the sand trap. Coronel, the points leader, came a few inches away from almost certainly being beheaded by Wakisaka’s chassis, and had tire marks on his helmet. The two were able to climb out of their cars unhurt.

As they slowed for the caution, backmarker Takashi Yokoyama, the teammate to Shigekazu Wakisaka, didn’t seem to notice what was going on. While Wakisaka was fast and contending for podium finishes, Yokoyama’s results were very poor, this mostly being due to him running a 1996 model car instead of Wakisaka’s 1997 model car. As usual, Yokoyama had fallen back already and was a few seconds behind everyone. As they slowed on the front chute, Yokoyama approached them at a very high speed. Either he hadn’t noticed the safety car boards or had but was unsighted due to the fairly blind nature of the final corner’s exit, but either way he was running at high speed. Yokoyama’s car struck another one at 160mph, launching him airborne and into a gantry positioned sixteen feet in the air across the circuit. The car shattered, and Yokoyama died instantly. The race was red flagged and called off. Coronel was the champion that year, having secured the title with the race’s cancellation.

423480d1417011582-indy-formula-one-fatal-non-fatal-crash-photos-stop-motion-color-b-w-frames-karpistakashiyokoyama1997-3
Source unknown; I believe that is Yokoyama at the far right, his roll hoop lining up with the I in ‘Konami’

1999: Indycar at Charlotte*

May 1, 1999. On lap 61 of the Visionaire 500k, the third round of the 1999 Indy Racing League, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stan Wattles crashed in turn four. Open wheelers are made to break apart in accidents to help dissipate the energy, and that was the case with Wattles’ car. Wattles himself was unscathed. However, Scott Harrington and John Paul, Jr. proceeded to pile into the debris field, sending pieces of Wattles’ car and their own cars, including at least one tire, over the catchfence and into the crowd. While Paul, Jr. and Harrington were both unhurt as well, several fans were injured by the flying debris. The caution flag immediately came out, and the cars were paced around the track as they confirmed injuries. On lap 79, the cars were stopped, and it was announced that there had been fatalities. The race went no further, and, having not yet hit halfway (104 laps), it was declared a non-event. The Indy Racing League never returned to Charlotte.

In all, nine fans were severely injured, and three were killed. They were identified as Jeffrey Patton, Randy Pyatte, and D.B. Mobley. The fan fatalities were announced on air, though their identities were only announced later. A nine year old girl was critically injured, but survived. In 1999, most catchfences jutted straight upwards, but after this a curve to help keep debris in-bounds was mandated.

Interestingly, during the U.S. 500 CART race at Michigan in 1998, Adrian Fernandez crashed in the trioval, throwing debris over the fence and killing three people. The race continued on, so it’s possible that the IRL called the race off to show that it had a sense of decency and thus prevent fans from ditching the IRL for its rival.

2001: CART at Texas

The situation during pre-race for the Firestone Firehawk 600k at the Texas Motor Speedway was one of the most complicated in history, but in short, drivers were experiencing extremely heavy G-Forces.

A few drivers reported to teams that they’d been experiencing the onset of vertigo during practice. CART cars were faster than IRL cars, and usually when it oval raced it ran flat ovals, with the few high banked ovals on its schedule being wide-open. Texas is rather high banked and is a very tight oval, and the added speed made for some incredibly high G-Forces and the very real possibility that drivers would have to withdraw due to fatigue. CART held a driver’s meeting and polled drivers to see who had experienced the symptoms, and to the amazement of everyone, every single hand in the drivers’ section went up. Drivers later explained that they had experienced the symptoms during pre-season testing at the track, but had kept them to themselves, assuming that they were the only ones with those symptoms. Two hours before the green flag was supposed to fly, CART decided, out of concern for the safety of the drivers, to pack up and go home, and the race was never rescheduled. This was yet another piece of straw placed upon the camel’s back as CART started to lose favor with the public. It folded after 2007, and was merged with Indycar.

2005: Italian GT at Imola

Most of the countries that possess permanent race tracks have national Grand Touring series, and Italy is no exception. It’s a fairly nondescript series, and nothing special goes on in it, but it’s always nice to have a series where drivers can show what they’ve got against those of similar skill (not necessarily similar budget, though…), and national level series are extremely important to furthering the careers of aspiring young talents.

26 cars were entered into the season opener in 2005, to be held at the Imola circuit near San Marino. GT cars are quite well known for being absolutely lovely, and the cars that showed up to Imola were no exception. The standard Ferrari 360s and Porsche 996s were on the grid, along with some more obscure cars such as the Saleen S7-R and the Lister Storm. Practice was held on April 2nd.

That same day, Pope John Paul II, who had become the Pope in 1978, died. Organizers chose to cancel the race, which had been scheduled for April 3rd. Oddly, the race was not rescheduled for a later date as is traditional when an event is cancelled due to the death of a prominent figure. As such, Italian GT did not race at Imola whatsoever in 2005, only returning for the season opener in 2006.

2008: NEMA at Thompson*

Midget racing is one of the most popular and common forms of motorsports in the United States. Midgets are also extremely popular in Australia and New Zealand, where they are known as speedcars. These cars are lightweight and easy to turn over, but they’re thrilling to watch. Midgets usually race on short dirt tracks, though they do run paved tracks from time to time.

The NorthEastern Midget Association is a pavement midget series that has been going for well over 60 years. In 2008, one of the racers in the series was Shane Hammond. Hammond had overcome many adversities to even get into a race car, having survived a brain tumor at the age of 15. Race one of the series’ schedule that year brought them to the high banked 0.625 mile Thompson Speedway in Connecticut for the historic track’s season opening weekend. The Thompson Speedway’s season opening weekend, known as The Icebreaker, contains many different events such as late models, modifieds, and of course, the NEMA Midgets. The headliner of The Icebreaker is the NASCAR Modified Tour, with NEMA following not far behind on the ‘priority’ list.

On April 4, 2008, Hammond’s throttle stuck in the entry of a corner and the 27-year-old flew over the wall and into a billboard, collapsing it. The race, which was on lap four of 25, was called off immediately and the races were halted while the track workers removed what was left of the billboard. The NEMA race was not restarted, but after the billboard’s remnants were scrapped, officials decided to continue with The Icebreaker.

Hammond was dead on arrival to the hospital. Spectators were aware of his passing by the final race of the day. NEMA took some time off from the Thompson Speedway for the next few years, but has since returned to the somewhat large one kilometer oval. A new race joined the schedule in 2010 at the Waterford Speedbowl by the name of the Shane Hammond Memorial, and it remained on the schedule until 2016. The Waterford Speedbowl shuttered in early April of 2017 after its owner was arrested, and its future, along with the future of the Shane Hammond Memorial, is uncertain.

2011: Indycar at Las Vegas*

The 2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…where should I even begin with one of the most controversial, destructive, and tragic abortions of a race in motorsports history?

It was announced early in the year that Indycar would be opening up the entry list to the Las Vegas race to non-Indycar drivers. If they received more than five of these entries, a panel would choose which five would be allowed to race. If one of these drivers won, they would receive five million dollars. Two dozen drivers said that they were interested in competing, but only six drivers actually were able to put together deals. All six deals fell apart, however. Scott Speed’s deal fell apart after he didn’t qualify for that year’s Indy 500, Kasey Kahne was dissuaded from running the race by Rick Hendrick, his new car owner, Travis Pastrana’s deal was cancelled when he was injured at the X Games, and the reasons as to why Kimi Raikkonen, Alex Zanardi, and Joey Hand’s deals fell through was never given.

On September 4th, 2011, Indycar announced that there would be no wild cards. It was then announced on September 13th that popular Briton Dan Wheldon, who had spent most of the rest of the year testing the new vehicle model that would be instituted the next year, would start the race in the back, and would split the 5 million with a lucky fan if he managed to win. Entry forms were due on October 6th.

On October 13th, Ann Babenco of New Jersey was chosen as that fan, meaning she’d get a large chunk of money if Dan brought it home in first. Ann got to meet Wheldon, and flew to the track to watch the race live.

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Credit to Daily Mail

Behind the scenes, however, things weren’t so rosy. Drivers were used to the speeds of 225mph, but they heavily questioned Indycar for allowing them on such a thin track. Addtionally, with an entry list of 34 drivers (some of whom very rarely raced in Indycar) and no intention to have anyone fail to qualify, drivers were worried as to how large the packs would be. Indycar ignored both concerns.

On October 16th, 2011, Tony Kanaan led the massive 34 car grid to the green at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Dan, who was the in race reporter and had the onboard camera, quickly worked his way through the field. He seemingly played it cool, though other drivers could be heard over their radios swearing frequently and questioning how they’d get through 200 laps. It was only on lap 11 of 200 that tragedy struck.

Contact between J.R. Hildebrand and Wade Cunningham set off a vicious 15 car crash in turn two that sent many cars flying and several rolling. When the wreck began, ABC had been showing Dan’s onboard. Wheldon’s onboard camera was cut away from, but the Verizon subscribers who were watching his view live viewed it all the way through. Dan slammed into the back of Vitor Meira and took off, flying headfirst into the catchfence. The 2001 Indy Lights champion, 2005 Indycar champion, 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 winner, and Indycar veteran had no chance, dying on the helicopter. Pippa Mann and Will Power also turned over in the crash and both suffered injuries. One yellow flag lap was run before the race was red flagged, and several drivers reported that it looked like a bomb had gone off.

INDYCAR: OCT 16 IZOD IndyCar World Championships Presented By Honda - Dan Wheldon Crash
Credit to SEEN Sport Images; 12 (rolling): Will Power, 19 (bottom right): Alex Lloyd, 57 (center right): Tomas Scheckter, 83 (right, adjacent to Power): Charlie Kimball, 4 (pink car): J.R. Hildebrand
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Power hits the wall as Wheldon strikes the fence just off to the left of the shot; Credit to Mirror
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Will Power’s car shortly after his extrication; Note the tarp used to cover Wheldon’s car (which Power’s car landed near); Credit to CBS

The track had suffered severe damage, and with few days left in the year to run the event, the race was likely to be cancelled regardless. In any case, when the confirmation came in that Dan Wheldon was gone, the 19 cars left were lined up three wide and did a 5 lap tribute to Dan with Amazing Grace playing on the PA system and every single crew member and 11 of the 14 other drivers who had crashed (Mann, Hildebrand and Power were still in the hospital, Hildebrand was not seriously injured but was badly shaken) standing by on pit road. 7 of those 33 have not stepped foot in an Indycar since, those being Danica Patrick (who was already planning on leaving beforehand), Davey Hamilton (who fully retired after the crash), Vitor Meira, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice, and Alex Lloyd. ABC signed off with a last line from Marty Reid that ended with an explanation behind his preferred signoff phrase, ‘Until we meet again’, and that he usually used the phrase due to the finality of ‘Goodbye’ – a word he used to bid farewell to Wheldon as the screen faded.

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Dan’s car; Credit to AP

Dan was officially killed by massive head injuries when his head hit a support pole in the catchfence. The fans who were watching the Verizon livestream saw his accident all the way through, but ABC cut away when the pileup began. The full footage belongs in the hands of Indycar, who have not released it beyond allowing a small extension to be shown for a Canadian documentary on the World Championships. The footage shown in the documentary shows Dan’s onboard as he tries to navigate the minefield, and freezes when Dan hits Vitor Meira.

In the aftermath, the public heard of the safety concerns that the drivers had lodged towards Indycar, and while the drivers mourned, the fans protested. In the end, Indycar lost a large chunk of its fanbase, but has stayed in operation. It had already planned for the Las Vegas race to be the last race with the old car type, as a new car type was to be introduced in 2012. Originally called the IR12, it was eventually renamed the DW12 for Dan.

USP INDYCAR: PHOENIX GRAND PRIX-PRACTICE S CAR USA AZ
Credit to USA Today; Note the covers over the rear wheels meant to prevent wheel to wheel contact, a frequent cause of massive accidents in open wheel racing

Indycar will likely never return to Las Vegas, as the track has been shown to be unsuitable for Indycars after further testing. There were serious talks of never oval racing again in Indycar besides the Indianapolis 500, but Indycar eventually settled on cutting the oval count down to five (currently six). Indycar had been oval only until 2005, and in 2012 they were only running five. Interestingly, the first road course Indycar had run in 2005 had been St. Petersburg, Dan Wheldon’s hometown (Wheldon was actually much more well known in the States than in Britain; He’d moved to the States in 1999, and had become so attached to the United States that his resting place is Pinellas Park, Florida).

Even more so, St. Petersburg was the next race out for the Indycars. The new chassis was implemented for the St. Petersburg race, which was the 2012 season opener (Las Vegas had been intended to be the 2011 finale). Helio Castroneves won, and in one of the loveliest tributes ever seen in racing, drove up to the newly renamed Dan Wheldon Way, one of the roads that makes up the course, and gave his fallen friend a salute.

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Credit to Wikimedia

2011: MotoGP at Malaysia*

One week after the death of Dan Wheldon, on October 23rd, 2011, tragedy struck at Sepang in Malaysia during the MotoGP race. On lap two, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards were running side by side for fifth when they were suddenly blindsided by another rider, who was hanging onto his bike after falling off of it. The pair struck the rider, and all three crashed extremely hard. It was a crash that unfortunately occurs every now and again in motorcycle racing.

Rossi and Edwards eventually rose to their feet, but the other rider wasn’t moving. It was evident by his #58 who he was: Marco Simoncelli, a popular young rider who had been running in fourth. He had lost control of his bike and fallen, and in a last ditch effort to at least bring it to a stop on the inside of the course and continue, had hung on to it. Simoncelli himself had been struck by Rossi and Edwards. Despite medics’ best efforts, the 24-year-old, who was often called Supersic by his fans, was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. A MotoGP race must last three laps in order to be official, and since the crash happened on lap two, the race was abandoned.

Two weeks later at Valencia, an incredible tribute was done for Simoncelli, in which the MotoGP, Moto2, and 125cc (renamed Moto3 the next year) riders all took to the track at once for a lap in memoriam, the first known time that all classes lapped the track together in any context.

When they got back, Paolo, Marco’s father, asked for a somewhat different tribute: something known in Italy as ‘casino’. It’s the opposite of a minute of silence, instead it’s a minute of extremely loud noise, in which everyone gathered attempts to generate as much noise as they can – and so they did, shouting, cheering, banging tools, and even shooting off fireworks.

Marco is remembered with the Misano Circuit in Italy, which has since adopted the full name of ‘Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli’. The #58 will never be available to anyone ever again in the MotoGP, Moto2, or Moto3 series unless they are specifically allowed to run the number by the Simoncelli family.

2012: Russian Racing Championship at Smolensk*

Russia has quite the motorsport fanbase. Circuits have been popping up all over Russia in the past few years. In 2006, Russia only had one permanent track, but as of 2017, I am aware of eight. In fact, there’s even a circuit called the Red Ring located in Siberia.

The Smolenskring is another one of the circuits. It opened in 2010, and sits about halfway between Moscow and the Belarusian border. It’s a fast circuit despite its many twists and turns, which led to tragedy one day a few years after it opened.

On August 19th, 2012, during the second lap of the Super Production race, Yuri Semenchev entered the long, sweeping last turn with no brakes or steering and went straight on into the barrier. The Honda Civic flipped over and violently bounced every which way before eventually coming to rest on its side. Yuri died a few minutes after admission, and the race went no further. All other Russian Racing Championship races that day were also called off.

The top Russian touring car series saw many fatalities in the Soviet era, however Yuri Semenchev was the first driver to die in the series since the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. He was 49 years old, and was rather new to racing. He began racing in 2010, two years before his death.