FORT WORTH - Qualifying for tomorrow's (4-5-98) NASCAR Winston Cup Texas 500 was postponed yesterday at Texas Motor Speedway after water began seeping out of Turn 1 late in the afternoon.
The extraordinary turn of events occurred after the sun set behind the grandstand and shadows moved across the turn. Qualifying is scheduled to continue this morning, followed by the Coca-Cola 300 Busch Grand National race at 1 p.m. Tomorrow's Texas 500 is also scheduled to run as planned.
"As the sun set behind the grandstand, a shadow has come across Turn 1," explained Eddie Gossage, speedway vice president and general manager. "For the first time in about 10 days, we have water coming through the racetrack."
Track officials were blowing compressed air into trouble spots to force water out from beneath the track and said they expect today's events to go on as scheduled. A crowd of slightly more than 35,000 attended yesterday's qualifying, speedway officials said.
The afternoon session was halted about 5 p.m. after Winston Cup drivers Derrike Cope and Lake Speed - the seventh and ninth of 48 scheduled to make qualifying attempts - lost traction and crashed into the outside wall.
NASCAR officials, drivers and crewmen convened for the next hour at the problem spot and up and down pit road.
Gossage and NASCAR spokesman Jeff Motley announced later that the session had been postponed and the remaining cars in line impounded so that crews could not work on them overnight.
Beginning with former Winston Cup champion and current points leader Rusty Wallace, the drivers will resume one-lap qualifying rounds at 9:15 a.m. That session will be followed by an hour of Winston Cup practice from 10:45 to 11:45 a.m.
"NASCAR made the call to qualify today, according to the entry blank for the race," said Gossage, who added that the entry blank is the same for every Winston Cup race. "The way it reads, it's as if it started raining after seven or eight cars went out and we pick up again tomorrow morning."
Seeping moisture has plagued Turn 1 and Turn 4 since mid-March after an unusually wet year. Gossage said that since January, there has been 20 inches of rain in the area, far above the norm of 7.
The National Weather Service recorded 12.74 inches of rain between Jan. 1 and April 3. The average rainfall for the first three months of the year is 6.78 inches.
"When the last car Speed's crashed, all the drivers said, 'Let's go down and look at this thing,' " said Wallace, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Taurus. "Right when the sun went down, the damn water started coming out of the track.
"It makes you think."
Wallace and crew chief Robin Pemberton were among the first to head for Turn 1 after the session was halted. They were met by Gossage, NASCAR and Winston Cup officials and drivers Kenny Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader.
"I go to Turn 1, I get a bunch of Winston Cup drivers and need a plumber," Gossage said in the infield media center.
"We believe the race cars form the suction on the racetrack as they go by, and they're pulling the water out as the day goes by. Once the sun set, it quit evaporating.
"Of course, we've had 10, 20, 30 cars on at a time. Now we've got one at a time, so the cars tend to not dry it as well. That's the dilemma we face. It's the first time we've seen this in a week or 10 days, and it's extremely regrettable for the crowd that we have.
"But those are the cold, hard facts of what we're facing."
A year ago, Winston Cup qualifying was canceled because of wet weather, and the field for the track's inaugural Cup race was set by points.
Gossage said the rainfall has caused water to accumulate in the dirt banking beneath the racetrack. In the past 10 days, track officials installed French drains in turns 1 and 3. The drains had been installed in Turn 4 three weeks earlier.
The drains, installed at the top of the banking, are supposed to direct water away from the track's surface.
Wallace said he and Pemberton watched the qualfying runs of Steve Grissom and Speed and detected "something coming off the left rear tire."
Cope, the first driver to crash, lost traction in Turn 1, spun backward and contacted the outside concrete with the driver's side.
"I got down there and the car just slid out from under me," said Cope, driver of the No. 30 Gumout Pontiac Grand Prix. "Of course, there's been a lot of wrecks and a lot of trouble. And I hurt my ribs again."
The Winston Cup and Busch Grand National practices produced at least 10 crashes. The ones involving Cope and Speed within minutes of each other brought the 180-mph cars to a silent halt.
"I walked down to the corner, and looked at the corner," Wallace said. "If it's dry, I'm real comfortable here. I'm not going to back off. I'm going to feel comfortable going into it - if it's dry. And before I go out, I'll go out and make sure it's dry. If it's dry, I'll not hold back at all.
"They've got a good track, and if they dry it out we won't have a problem. We've seen many, many problems like this at other tracks - Daytona, Talladega."
Two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte recalled that a Cup qualifying session at Phoenix International Raceway was canceled two years ago because of a dust storm. But other than that, he could not recall a session being scrubbed in the sunshine.
"This is a little different," said Labonte, a Corpus Christi native and driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet Monte Carlo. "I'd qualify if the track was OK, fine. But I already spun out once today, and I don't want to do it again.
"But there's nothing wrong with the track. That's what I've been told - there's nothing wrong with the track. I'm glad these people didn't pave my driveway."
But Labonte, a supporter of developer Bruton Smith's $110 million project from the outset, said he has no idea what it will take to fix the recurring seepage problem beyond the French drain system installed in turns 1, 3 and 4.
"If they knew how to fix it, it'd be fixed, you know?" Labonte said. "When they built the track, believe me, they were the last people in the world that wanted anything wrong with it. I think I would have a real question with their contractor, their engineering people. That would be my first thought.
"Honestly, you can't put the blame on Eddie Gossage and Bruton Smith. They're not engineers. They've got a vision of what they wanted and they hired people to do it. But this is something that was a screw-up a long time ago. It wasn't because of age or anything like that, it was probably because somebody dropped the ball."
Car owner Andy Petree was more critical of the layout.
"The only way they are going to fix this is with a paver and a bulldozer," said Petree, owner of the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Chevy driven by Ken Schrader. "They knew they had this problem."
"It's still coming up all over the track," Schrader said. "There's no way around. There's also oil out there from the last Busch car that wrecked."
That was a reference to the Chevy driven by Tom Lorenz of Balch Springs, who wrecked during his Busch Grand National attempt.
Cup driver John Andretti called the scenario "confusing" as he visited with his wife, Nancy, and crewmen along pit road.
"What's unfortunate is a couple of guys got into the wall and then they find the problem," said Andretti, driver of the No. 43 STP Pontiac owned by Richard Petty. "Who knows how long the problem has existed?
"I drive the car, I don't own it. If they make me go out there, then I'll drive as hard as I can drive it. If I crash it, I'll crash it. It wouldn't be my choice to go out there, but if I was forced to I would. That kind of stuff doesn't bother me."
But Andretti added that the episode has to go down as a public relations disaster.
"Yeah, because nobody can come around and say, `Well, we didn't have time to fix the problem,' " Andretti said. "Last year they were under the gun and the facility probably wasn't ready. Now it's a whole year."