A Look Back

I’m sure the following revelation will get me a lifetime enrollment in the World Understatement Society, but here goes: What a year this has been!

Let's take a breath from the midst of this holiday season to look back and reflect on racing’s biggest news stories of 2001.

While 2001 was a year permeated with tragedy, sadness and emotion, there were also several positive stories and developments along the way.

Losing Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500 was akin to Tiger Woods being struck by lightning as he walked up the 18th fairway at The Masters, or Michael Jordan having a heart attack during Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was such a devastating blow that to this day, nearly a year later, it still seems surreal. You don’t have to be a NASCAR fan or even follow auto racing to know what Earnhardt meant to the sport and his loss will be felt for a very long time to come. Unfortunately his death wasn’t the only tragedy in a year that took the lives of ARCA driver Blaise Alexander, Trans-Am rookie Mike Gagliardo, ARCA veteran Dean Roper, CART owner Carl Hogan and legendary mechanic/car owner Smokey Yunick.

Earnhardt’s lasting legacy may be the impact his death had on the progression of safety in the sport. NASCAR was forced to finally take some long overdue steps to make racing safer including the mandate of head-and-neck restraint systems, seatbelt installation regulations, black box data-collecting devices and headgear for pit crewmembers. While additional measures such as less rigid frames, crush panels installed in the front end of cars and even soft walls continue to be studied, the sanctioning body has made it clear it will no longer drag its feet on the issue of safety.

NASCAR’s new multibillion-dollar television deal with FOX and NBC catapulted the sport into the television stratosphere. Record ratings were generated throughout the 2001 season with Winston Cup racing even holding its own against the mighty television sports giant NFL. The newfound appeal finally thrust NASCAR into the mainstream sports world and paved the way for even more coverage in 2002 when “NASCAR TV” makes its way on to the airwaves as part of the revamped Speedvision network, which will be reborn SpeedChannel in early February.

The TV news, however, wasn’t nearly as bright for the rest of the racing world. CART and the IRL struggled to generate even meager ratings, the Craftsman Truck Series suffered through a season of low television viewership while the ASA and World of Outlaws were virtually swept off the air after their broadcast partner The Nashville Network was rebranded as The National Network.

After more than 20 years of business, CART came dangerously close to collapsing after a disastrous 2001 season. Two races were cancelled, including the scheduled sixth visit to Brazil, which was knocked out when the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro could not come to terms on several issues with the sanctioning body. CART’s inaugural visit to Texas Motor Speedway was also lost after drivers experienced dizziness and vertigo during practice on race weekend and the track was deemed unsafe for the Champ cars. The ensuing public relations fallout and lawsuit filed against the sanctioning body by TMS, which has since been settled, left CART with a tremendous amount of egg on its face.

Alex Zanardi’s horrific accident in Germany, which cost the two-time CART champion both his legs, punctuated a season of tragedy and sorrow. Series President Joe Heitlzer, with only one year on the job, was ousted by the CART Board of Directors, who watched its stock plummet as the season progressed. Longtime promoter and motorsports businessman Chris Pook accepted the position of president earlier this month and is being looked upon as CART’s last chance to right its sinking ship.

While CART continued to self-implode, the six-year-old Indy Racing League matured into America’s premier open-wheel series. The IRL grew by leaps-and-bounds in 2001, providing some of the season’s most exciting racing. The series received an even bigger shot-in-the-arm in early December when Roger Penske announced he would move his two-car CART operation featuring 2000-2001 FedEx Championship Series titlist Gil de Ferran and last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to the IRL next season. Penske’s arrival, coupled with the participation of such powerful team owners as Chip Ganassi's, Carl Haas' and Barry Green’s entry in the IRL-sanctioned Indy 500 in 2002 gives the sanctioning body major momentum coming into the new year.

Chrysler Corporation’s long-awaited return to Winston Cup racing couldn’t have gone any better for the manufacturer. Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott and Ward Burton combined to bring the Dodge Intrepid four victories in 2001 with Elliott also capturing the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. Marlin finished third in points and headlines a strong cast of contenders for the make’s sophomore season in 2002.

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