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SEPTEMBER 21, 2001

Rockingham oval turns into fiasco

IT was not rain falling from the sky, rather water bubbling up through the track surface which caused the world's fastest racing cars to stand silent in the pit lane yesterday as the first major to be held at Britain's much touted Rockingham oval threatened to degenerate into an embarrassing fiasco.

The American CART single seaters, which were expected to lap the brand new, 1.5-mile banked circuit near Corby at an average of over 200mph, traditionally do not race on such oval circuits in wet conditions.

Yet either to a high water table or problems with the track's construction, the bizarre sight of water was bubbling through to the surface for the second successive day, made it impossible for the cars to take part in practice or qualifying sessions.

The organizers will be working flat-out overnight in another bid to rectify the problem and the race day schedule has been reorganized. There will be two hours of practice this morning while the race starts has been delayed from 12.30 to 3.15pm

"It's the same 'weeper' problem we used to have at Indianapolis and you can't stop them," said Michael Andretti, who lies third in this year's Cart championship points table.

"There is no way you could run at speed right now. The real problem is you couldn't see the 'weepers' from the cockpit. At speed, you could have gotten in pretty big trouble, so they made the right call."

For the Cart drivers and teams, still traumatized over the accident to Alex Zanardi at last weekend's race at the Lausiztzring track in Germany, safety was always going to be the overriding priority.

Mauricio Gugelmin, chairman of the Champ Car drivers' association, said: "We want to put on a show, but safety is our prime concern. Also, how much water is under the track? Is it a sinkful? Is it a swimming pool full?"

After the first problems were encountered on Thursday, the Rockingham organizers seemed upbeat. "Over the last 72 hours we've had heavy rain and the clay under the (track) surface has soaked that up," said track spokesman Stephen Slater.

"Tonight (Thursday) we're going to sink a couple of shafts in turn two that will form a well. It's been done successfully earlier in the development of the track on the start/finish straight where we had the same problems."

This procedure is the same as that adopted at Indianapolis to avoid so-called "weepers," but officials of Cart - the US sanctioning body - privately fear that Rockingham could require extensive engineering work to correct the problem.

Kirk Russell, the vice president of competition for Cart, made the official announcement which brought yesterday's proceedings to an end.

"Due to the ongoing water problem that has plagued the track for the last two days, today's on-track activities have been cancelled," he said.

"Qualifying has been scrubbed and the starting grid will be according to championship points."

That places Kenny Brack on pole position driving a Reynard-Ford for former Jaguar formula one chief Bobby Rahal's team, ahead of reigning Cart champion Gil de Ferran, Andretti and Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves with Scot Dario Franchitti in sixth place starting from the third row.