in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of September 12, 1999
MONTEREY, California - (Sept. 12, 1999) by Robin Miller - A violent accident during practice Saturday claimed the life of rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez and cast a pall over Laguna Seca Raceway for today's Honda Grand Prix of Monterey. The native of Montevideo, Uruguay, suffered massive head and neck injuries after his car slammed head-on into a tire/concrete wall. The car flipped over the wall, sailing nearly 30 feet and landed upside down on the side of a hill that borders the famous Corkscrew corner. He was 27.
"The impression from witnesses at the scene was that he was killed instantly on impact with the wall," said Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical affairs for Championship Auto Racing Teams. Because of the damage to the wall and concern over how the car was launched -- as well as respect for Rodriguez -- CART opted to postpone the remainder of practice and the second round of qualifying.
It was CART's third fatality in 21 years and the first serious injury in its 17 years of competing on this 2.2-mile road course. Jeff Krosnoff lost his life at Toronto in 1996 and Jim Hickman was killed at Milwaukee in 1982.
Because of the angle of impact and velocity (estimated at 160-170 mph), it was speculated the throttle had been stuck on the Marlboro Lola/Mercedes/Goodyear. Video replays showed skid marks from the front brakes as the car went straight off the track. But Paul Morgan, managing director of Ilmor Engineering, said the car's telemetry showed no such problem. "Our information shows the throttle was working properly," said Morgan, whose company builds the Mercedes powerplant.
After the accident, drivers held a lengthy meeting to discuss possible safety precautions. "People wonder why we didn't have more tires up there (turn eight), but there's no sense pointing fingers," said Paul Tracy. "It's a terrible thing that happened, but sometimes good things come from it. Hopefully, they'll make changes there and other places where they are needed."
Rodriguez, who had finished 12th in his CART debut at Detroit, had qualified 24th of 29 drivers on Friday but turned the 13th fastest time during Saturday's practice period. Owner Roger Penske, whose only other driver loss in 30-plus years of fielding race cars came in 1976 when Mark Donohue was killed in a Formula One race in Austria, immediately withdrew the car of Rodriguez's teammate, Al Unser Jr.
It's very difficult to follow that sort of news with any kind of light-hearted, upbeat stuff, but we've got to move on. The tragedy at Monterey is something that is unexpected, very much unwanted and quite often, unncessary. But now is not the time to point fingers or make off-the-cuff suggestions on how to prevent such an event from occuring again. All I wish to do today is offer my sincerest condolences to Gonzalo Rodriguez's family, friends, team-mates and crew members.
"Bad" news of an altogether different variety came from New England Dragway's "IHRA Parts Pro North American Nationals" today, where Richmond, BC's Glen May lost in the first round of Pro Mod eliminations. Following his very good qualifying effort yesterday (6.408 - 213.48), I'd hoped for big things from the new "Cranberry Connection" truck today. Alas, it was not meant to be, as after a short nap (sorry Glen, but the numbers don't lie -- or do they?), he spun the tires hard and then went into hard tire shake. The verdict: after a .728 reaction, a 12.242 at 61.38 and a first round loss. Better luck in two weeks at Rockingham Dragway's "IHRA Carquest Autumn Nationals".
There was some good news from New England however, with Paul Romine setting a new IHRA Top Fuel "World" Record at 4.712, backed up with a later 4.74. He then proceeded to win the event, over a rather thin seven-car field, making only one full pass (in the final) at 4.80 to defeat surprise runner-up, Bobby Lagana, Jr., whose fairy-tale ride ended a round short of his first career victory. Let's face it, with a best for the weekend of 5.40, young Mr. Lagana made some very large withdrawls from the luck bank. On the other hand, though, no team in drag racing works harder and makes do with less than this bunch of die-hard, down and dirty drag racers from Scarsdale, New York. Long live the "low-buck" fuel racers. They proved it can (almost) be done still.
Another bit of good news from the IHRA race concerned the Pro Mod champion. No, of course it wasn't Glen May, but a fellow Canadian, Al Billes, of Barrie, Ontario turned back the best the Yanks could offer and prevailed. I was personally hoping for a final round duel with low-qualifier and the quickest and fastest car on the grounds, Troy Critchley, in Johnny Rocca's '49 Mercury "Iron Horse". Why, you might ask? Well, Troy is a transplanted Aussie (previously drove Victor Bray's #2 car) and the "international" aspect of that match-up would have been sweetly ironic. Just another bit of trivia in that scenario is that Rocca (when he was driving the car) toured Australia in 1997. Small world, isn't it? And getting smaller all the time, too.Eero the Hero: The only good news on the drag racing front this weekend comes all the way from Great Britain's Santa Pod Raceway, site of the (European) season-ending "FIA European Finals". Yesterday's stellar performance by Finland's Eero Kilpelainen, in his Top Methanol Dragster, setting a (provisional) FIA record of 5.708 at 247.30, was backed up in a very impressive fashion in today's eliminations. In the first round, Eero ran the first 5.6-second run outside of North America, and in the process backed up both ends of the FIA T/MD record.
To put all the tremendous performances of the weekend in perspective, consider that only ONE sub-5.80 run had previously been recorded all year. That run (a 5.76) was the property of Switzerland's Peter Beck, who ran very respectable laps of 5.85 and 5.87 at Santa Pod this weekend, but was completely lost in the glow surrounding the "Flying Finns".Over in Top Fuel, a former Canadian, Gordie Bonin, who had already wrapped up the FIA Championship, fell to Great Britain's Robin Read (brother of Aussie Top Fuel racer Steve Read), in a wild final round battle. Bonin crossed the centreline just past the finish line, while Read blew his second engine of the day in a spectacular finish to the last major drag race in Europe this season. Bonin still claimed Low ET of the meet with the only 4-second run of the year across the pond, a 4.997 on Saturday, while Read grabbed Top Speed with a first round 295.40. The 295 mph run was also the fastest of the 1999 European season. For more details on the event, read our Race Report and then check out all the results on the Results Menu.
A final note on Santa Pod. The weather conditions were excellent, cool and cloudy for today's eliminations, but the track preparation must have been excellent also. Numerous racers turned personal best times and nearly every Top Methanol car ran their season bests on the Santa Pod surface. Congratulations to all the racers, the promoters and the track workers. Great show, lads!
More news tomorrow, including my personal reaction to the tragedy in Monterey. As always, stay tuned to Northern Thunder's "What's New" page for all the latest news from the world of drag racing.