CHAMPCAR/CART: Heitzler, Andretti, Gugelmin, Herta interview, part III

Participants: Joe Heitzler Michael Andretti Mauricio Gugelmin Bryan Herta Maybe start with Joe. You guys should be four races into your season at this point. Everybody knows what happened at Rio, and everybody knows what happened at Dallas.

Participants:

Joe Heitzler
Michael Andretti
Mauricio Gugelmin
Bryan Herta

Maybe start with Joe. You guys should be four races into your season at this point. Everybody knows what happened at Rio, and everybody knows what happened at Dallas. But those were -- Rio, Brazil is one of your strongholds for fans. And Dallas routinely has gotten some of higher marks among television racing for CART races, even though we never had a race there. Do you feel a little snake bit in your position right now about the problems that have basically come out of thin air, and to a certain extent out of your control.

Joseph Heitzler: I look at these for opportunities for the company as long as it's making the decisions that are in the best interests of the fans and the drivers. And I look at the relativity of the Rio situation, that was totally out of our hands, and that situation is just regrettable and unfortunate, and it has implications that have caused one franchise team not to be able to field their car. I wish that the mayor of Rio had realized the economic impact of his decision, because I think it hurt our teams. It hurt the image of open wheel racing, and it certainly negatively affected the economy of Rio.

As it relates to Texas, as I said, the process is the most important thing that a company has in its trust with its fans. We need to ever, ever be cognizant of that. And so I don't feel snake bit at all. I feel that these are opportunities to grow for management. They're opportunities to grow as a team between the drivers and the sponsors and our owners, and most of all I feel the fans, at least as I said earlier, all the messages I'm getting and phone calls and e-mails and letters are in support of what we did and said -- are saying finally someone's taking an action that is responsible.

Mauricio Gugelmin: I would like to follow on Joe. I think our start of the season has been different, but rather than being snake bit, I feel that I'm very proud of the way CART has stopped the season. I know Rio was out of our control, as Joe said, totally political matter, and that was very unfortunate, especially for Brazilian drivers, like myself.

But we had two basically great events at Mexico, which was our first race, and Long Beach. Those events were incredible. And now we had a situation this weekend that really proved how serious this whole company is. And we made a very smart decision in a very unique situation. And I'm very proud to be part and be a driver in a series like this that really cares about their individuals. So I think it has been a great start all in all.

I'd like to ask Michael and maybe Bryan, it's almost like you need to have a speed limit if you ever go back to Texas, because you now know what the threshold is of what your body can handle. How can you have a speed limit? It's kind of like a double-edged sword there at this point.

Michael Andretti: It's called science. It's going to be up to the engineers to come up with a way to slow these things down that makes sense. I mean, it sounds so easy to slow a car down. I had somebody come up to me and say why didn't you guys go out there and just not go flat out? You can't do that. We're racers. We're going to go out there and go as fast as we can. And so the engineers are going to do everything they can, once they come up with this rule to slow them down to make them go faster. But it's going to be up to them to do it in a way that it will take a long time to get back to those speeds.

In my opinion the way -- the only way you're really going to do it, I don't think you're going to do it aerodynamically. I think you're going to have to do it with the engines. It's going to come down to the engine manufacturers are going to have to figure out a solution to slow those things down, basically get rid of horsepower. They're going to have to get a minimum of a hundred horsepower out of these engines and be able to do it safely without creating other problems of reliability with the engines.

Bryan Herta: This is Bryan. My job as a driver is to make the thing go as fast as possible. We want to take the rules given and maximize it. It's really going to have to be CART and their suppliers' job to figure out a way to do that safely. And I think that's one option is to slow the cars down. And the other one is to look at how many tracks do you want to slow the cars down? At a few tracks? Because there's really only maybe three or four tracks where the speed is getting to a point where it's out of hand.

I think a lot of the tracks we go to the cars are great to drive. They're fun with a lot of horsepower in a lot of the street courses and road courses. They're great to drive with the horsepower they have, the grip level we have and the performance we have. And I think we're able to do that within a very comfortable safety window.

So do you want to emasculate the cars for a few tracks that maybe we're too fast for? And I think that's the balancing act that CART has to deal with in the future.

The term that's been used is that the race has been postponed, and yet the comments from the drivers and to some extent even Joe, it sounds -- I don't hear an awful lot of optimism for being able to develop the technology to get this race back on to schedule this year. I'm wondering if I'm misinterpreting what I'm hearing or not?

Joseph Heitzler: Our goal is to get this race back on the schedule. And I think we've been very clear that we've reached a threshold, we're aggressively looking at the threshold right now. I'm meeting with all three of the manufacturers and we learned a lot about ourselves as we explored all these options. And if the Texas Motor Speedway will work with us and give us some dates, we believe that we can respond in a very safe and diligent manner, and we look to do this.

First to Mr. Heitzler, have you or will you return the sanctioning fee to Texas Motor Speedway?

Joseph Heitzler: It's not even something I've even thought about at this moment.

Second one, clear up how the process, as you call it, was initiated? There have been some media reports that suggest that this was a drivers revolt, that the drivers banded together and demanded that they not race when it didn't seem to be that way at all. Who started the process that led to the postponement of the race?

Joseph Heitzler: I can do that in a very clear and succinct and direct manner. On Friday when Mauricio had his incident, I had dedicated this weekend as the CEO of this company to race operations, as the previous race I had dedicated it to television. I participated from the moment our safety crews arrived at his car. I rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance with Mauricio, and I was at the hospital with him and we cordially some incredible conversations of two men involved in a sport they love. And we are very fortunate that our safety systems and our requirements for those systems played an instrumental part in Mauricio being with us today and ready to race in Nazareth next week.

That as a preamble, the following took place: On Saturday around noon, Dr. Olvey got in touch with me on my walkie-talkie and suggested that I come to the medical unit, that he had some things he wanted to talk to me about and educate me on. And he was beginning to experience several drivers saying to him that they were experiencing some light-headedness and some dizziness. He took that under tow.

I then decided that I would start to find as many drivers as I could and team owners and team crew chiefs. By the time I got back to the medical unit, we were nearing a 4:00 drivers meeting, and the 4:00 drivers' meeting took place and in that meeting a direct question was asked, how many drivers are experiencing light-headedness and dizziness. And 21 out of 25 expressed their opinions that they were experiencing this and I must say this was a seminal moment in our company, because these are professional athletes having to share with their competitors in the same room what they felt was a diminished capacity situation.

At that particular moment Dr. Olvey advised all of us of what was going on, and that he had contacted NASA and other doctors that he has in his network, and that they had concluded, along with some charts that we had on G forces, that this was the phenomenon, as he described in his comments at our press conference. At that particular point the drivers -- we had a franchise owners meeting where I explained what we were experiencing. And then I had a meeting with the engine manufacturers and we all begun to explore every option that we had available to us that would allow us to have a race, because that's what we came to Texas to do, and that's what we all do for a living.

We worked well into the night until about 8:00. I then informed Mr. Burton Smith and Mr. Eddie Gossage that we were having some difficulties and explained what the difficulties were to them, but that we were going to work through the night. We felt we could come up with some options that would be reasonable with the goals of driver safety and fan safety. At approximately 9:00 in the morning we had another drivers meeting. We discussed the options that we had available to us, and it was at that time, as the CEO of this company that I listened to the owners, I listened to the drivers, I listened to the two sponsors of the race, and I listened to the three engine manufacturers, and I decided that as the CEO of this company that under all the conditions as expressed to me by all of the stakeholders that the best decision on behalf of all of us, and as the team leader for all of those stakeholders, that I would call management of the track, express to them that we had exercised every viable option known to us at the time and that it was in my judgment and my judgment only that we would need to postpone the race.

We then subsequently had a media conference as you know, and that's the order in which all of this transpired. At no time did any driver ever say he would not get in a car and go race. And I did ask them the question, and they said they would go race. And I said, as your CEO, I do not think that's the right thing to do, and we are going to postpone this race. Thank you for asking.

I'd ask Mauricio how he's feeling, but I don't want to burn up a question. But my question is for Mauricio. We haven't talked about this. This was the first time that the HANS device was required. And I spoke to Dr. Hubbard this morning, can you tell me how you think it worked, didn't work, your experience in using it?

Mauricio Gugelmin: That certainly was the most important piece that I was wearing on that Friday afternoon, I have to say that. According to Dr. Olvey, I sustained 66 G of frontal impact for over a tenth of a second of duration, which is quite a long duration, and that's the highest G load ever sustained without major injury to a driver. And then after that I still went across the track and had another impact at 113 G backwards. So to be able to walk out of the hospital Friday afternoon in the company of Joe and my team members is quite remarkable. And that's another thing that I have to applaud CART to make these a mandatory device to use on the oval tracks, and among our driving group, we basically tried to develop that piece to be a little bit more comfortable and make sure that we all wear on the road courses, too, even before we make it mandatory, because I would say comparing from once the leather helmets were dropped to the current helmets, this is another step like that.

How do you feel today?

Mauricio Gugelmin: I feel great. I've been swimming a lot to get my muscles to relax, and I'll be ready for Nazareth.

For the drivers, I'm just curious, I understand that this didn't come down to an organized effort with you saying we don't feel comfortable racing, but if you could speak about -- there's got to be some comfort level knowing that there is an organization of you that will address safety concerns, and there is that safety net, other forms of racing don't have something like that. And if you could make a comment on how nice it is to know at least there is that organization there that had it come to that you had it in place.

Mauricio Gugelmin: I basically can speak on behalf of the drivers. We feel very comfortable with CART, with their whole management, and how they go about business. They have a full understanding of what it takes to have a professional series. We make decisions together. And we all live in a fast world, and not always a perfect world. And a lot of heads thinking together can always make better decisions. And I think Joe has been very instrumental in getting the company in that direction. And as drivers we are very proud of being part of this sport that we love so much. It's certainly something that is very gratifying to go back home and see your family and have good days every time you go out with these guys.

Is there, though, that safety net knowing that you all are kind of in that together, that you do have an organization where you can express concerns, if it ever came to that?

Michael Andretti: Absolutely. I think we all -- it just gives us that much more peace of mind. Just the way CART is the only organization, for instance, that has a medical staff and safety crew totally on the payroll. Things like that that really, as a driver, make you feel comfortable. When you go to every racetrack you know you're going to have the best care available there in case something goes wrong, and that's so important. That really gives you a good peace of mind. And it is a safety net there.

And then now to have leadership like Joe, what he did there to make this decision for the drivers, I mean it was just -- it just gives you, again, another really good feeling about the whole organization and the way it's run.

Joseph Heitzler: This is not a management statement, this is a human element statement, but I think it will demonstrate, and answer your query. I was there when Mauricio's car finally came to a stop. And the first voice, and the first face that he saw was the face of five or six men that he knows, and the first voice of concern is a familiar voice. And when you're in an incident like that where you don't know what happened and where you are, you may be disoriented for a moment, but something about your life has changed, and to be able to have a relationship, a personal relationship with someone who's there that cares about you and knows about you, and then every second after that you're being touched in a human way by someone who cares about you as a human, first and foremost, and not as a race car driver, and then to be taken to our medical hospital where the proper diagnosis can be made and in few of a history. And in Mauricio's case, Dr. Olvey knows the spinal setup, the vertebrae setup for Mauricio from when he was a much younger man, these are personal issues that allow him -- he, Dr. Olvey to call the hospital that he's going to, where Steven Olvey already has a relationship with that emergency room, to say don't worry about the 4th vertebrae, because it's smaller from a generic point of view on Mauricio, so don't be concerned about that when you take his photo. I mean that's unprecedented from a medical point of view, but from a human point of view, as a CEO of this company, I was taken aback by that level of trust these drivers have when Terry Trammell shows up or Lon Bramley shows up and they're placed in the hands of Steven Olvey and others. I just wanted to mention to you that there's no amount of money or no amount of paperwork or plans in life that create a human trust when your life and your well-being is at stake, like these drivers have with CART and the safety and medical services that CART is clearly the leader on.

My question is for Joe. You mentioned a couple of times the importance of addressing the fan concerns, particularly with supposedly 57,000 people inbound to the speedway and whatnot. How come on Sunday there was nothing done in terms of compensatory activity, no autograph session, no open paddock, nothing done on behalf of the fans that had traveled down for the race?

Joseph Heitzler: That's a great question, and I am so glad you asked it, because CART was willing to open up the pit, the paddock area, we offered up every single driver. We offered up tours of haulers, we offered all this up to Mr. Gossage and his staff, and on two occasions we were turned down.

Did Mr. Gossage give you any reason or background for that?

Joseph Heitzler: He seemed to be concerned about the well-being of our drivers. And I commend him for that. He felt that perhaps the fans may have been a bit upset at the lateness of which the announcement was made. And we trust -- he trusted us to make decisions relative to the safety of our drivers, the integrity of the race, and the safety of the fans. And at this particular point after we asked a second time we trusted him that he knows his fan base and we abided by his decision.

Michael, in 18 years you've been doing this, have you ever seen anything like this before in terms of the symptoms you were dealing, is this all just completely new?

Michael Andretti: I can tell you that the forces I was feeling on my body was completely new. I had an idea I was going to be really fast and we were going to have some forces on us, but I didn't even imagine that it was going to be the way it was. I mean it was just incredible. And that's pretty incredible for someone like me that's been around as long as I have to feel something new like that. And it was truly an incredible feeling. The forces that were put on your body when you went through a corner were just incredible. Like all your organs were smooshing down in your body, and it was just a real strain on your body and the whole bit. And so it was quite interesting.

Were you ever experiencing any dizziness in California or Michigan?

Michael Andretti: I've never experienced that, no.

Question for Joe. Joe, you indicated in going forward with the Texas Motor Speedway you stated our priority is the fans. Can you elaborate on that, please?

Joseph Heitzler: Well, our priorities are the fans. I suggested earlier that without the fans that we don't have a sport. And so my priority is how can we return to that market, and in the meantime what can we do to help restore the inconvenience that we caused at Texas Motor Speedway.

How do you envision being able to restore that, what sort of options are you exploring?

Joseph Heitzler: Well, No. 1, there will be appearing in the next day or two, we're taking out full page ads to apologize to the fans for this inconvenience, No. 1.

No. 2, we're working with some of our sponsors to see if we shouldn't have an occasion where we could work together with the fans to see if they'd want to go to the Houston race. We've even talked about a fan sweepstakes where we could have an environment where a lot of fans could win a trip to a CART race outside of the Texas marketplace. And this is why myself and my business associates stayed in all Sunday and all of Monday to do these -- to research these issues and also to meet with Texas Motor Speedway, and also all of this is to reschedule the event.

Do you have a date for rescheduling?

Joseph Heitzler: No, we don't.

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Mauricio Gugelmin , Bryan Herta