After turning the fastest qualifying lap in auto racing history—240.942 mph last Saturday at the new California Speedway outside Los Angeles—Mauricio Gugelmin didn't even smile when he spoke to reporters afterward. He would rather have won the pole for Sunday's Marlboro 500, the CART season finale, without making history. "I guess breaking the 240 barrier is a magic number, but everyone is a bit nervous," said Gugelmin, a Brazilian who moved from Formula One to CART in 1993. "I think nobody's comfortable. I'm not. I think sometimes we push the laws of physics [too far]."
Gugelmin and two other drivers broke Arie Luyendyk's single-lap qualifying record of 237.498, set at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in '96. Eleven more drivers broke the CART record of 234.665, set by Jimmy Vasser at Michigan Speedway last year.
Vasser, who qualified second at 239.222, agreed with Gugelmin, saying, "A lot of bad things can happen at those speeds if something on the car breaks." Vasser had seen one of those bad things during practice last Friday, when his teammate, CART season champion Alex Zanardi, spun his Reynard- Honda into the wall at more than 230 mph. Zanardi, who had wrapped up the series points championship at Laguna Seca on Sept. 7, escaped with a mild concussion but was unable to drive on Sunday.
The race, won by England's Mark Blundell, didn't live up to its high-speed prelude, though several drivers turned laps in the mid-230s. Blundell's average speed was a paltry 166.575 mph, the result of five caution flags that flew for 41 of the 250 laps. Driver misgivings about high speeds were confirmed only once, when rookie Arnd Meier spun in front of Luyendyk, who was filling in for Zanardi. Flying into Turn 4, Luyendyk had no time to react and slammed hard into Meier. The collision forced Luyendyk into the wall and briefly knocked him unconscious. He, too, suffered a mild concussion.
At a time when the trend in every major form of motor racing is to reduce speed in the interest of safety, CART drivers found themselves pushing the envelope during qualifying. "At anything above 237," said veteran Bobby Rahal, "you're basically just hanging on."
The high speeds were the result of two factors, the first of which is the California Speedway layout. The track was designed—with considerable input from racers—to accommodate both the heavy Winston Cup cars and the lighter, much faster Indy cars. NASCAR drivers like the gradual transition from the track's straightaways to its 14-degree banked turns; it helps them maintain their speed. But that smooth transition allows Indy drivers to carry more speed into the turns than at other tracks, speeds that make them uncomfortable.
The other reason for the fast lap times is the close competition among CART manufacturers, including the makers of tires ( Firestone and Goodyear), engines (Ford Cosworth, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota) and chassis (Lola, Penske, Reynard and Swift). Improvement in engine performance has bumped horsepower to near 900—rivaling the unrestricted Formula One engines of the early '90s as the mightiest power plants ever seen in traditional motor racing.
Trying to ward off the higher speeds such power brings, CART mandated a cut in turbocharger boost before the 1997 season. That helped slow the cars early on. At the two-mile Michigan Speedway, whose design the California track mimics, Scott Pruett's July pole speed was a mere 233.857 mph. "That just shows you what has happened in the technological race in the past couple of months," says team owner Roger Penske.
Next season CART will introduce electronic pop-off valves to more precisely regulate boost, which should slow down the cars somewhat. CART president Andrew Craig said on Sunday that plans to downsize engines from the current 2.65 liters to 1.8 had been tabled for at least two years because of the expense of such a changeover. "For now, we're looking at everything from boost to reduced aerodynamic downforce to tires," said Craig. "We'd like to bring speeds under 230 mph."
Some slowdown. But that's open-wheel racing: No record speeds, no worries.