Daytona claims another life

February 15, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Winston Cup series is still three days away from its first races of the season, the Twin 125-mile qualifiers, but yesterday, for the second time in four days, a driver died here.

Rodney Orr, 31, of Palm Coast, Fla., who took his Ford Thunderbird out for a morning practice session, was killed when his car slid windshield first into the Turn 2 wall.

The back end of the car appeared to come loose, forcing the car down onto the apron of the track. Orr appeared to be trying to correct the spin, but the car headed back up the track, flipped and slid into the wall.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at Halifax Medical Center at 10:06 a.m. with massive head and upper body injuries.

The accident occurred while many members of the Winston Cup racing community were on their way to the funeral of driver Neil Bonnett, who was killed in a single-car accident in the fourth turn Friday.

"We're all numb," said ESPN announcer Benny Parsons, a former racer. "We're all trying to make sense of it. Historically, we are a safe sport. Now, all of a sudden, everybody is trying to make sense of what's happening the last few days.

"And I can't make sense of it.

"I'm sure every driver, every crew chief is talking to each other, trying to figure this out, asking, 'Are we doing something wrong?' "

Orr, the 1993 Goody's Dash Series Champion, had never driven a stock car more than 160 mph until last month when he tested his car here and recorded the seventh-fastest test lap at 190.074 mph.

He is survived by his wife, Crystal, whom he married last month, and by Ashton, his 8-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

When the word of Orr's death circulated through the garages yesterday, the first reaction was that someone was playing a tasteless joke. When it sank in, that the sport had suffered its second death in four days, pale faces turned to ash.

"Numb?" said car owner Robert Yates. "I'm sick. It's just so sad. It takes so much out of us. We love to race and we've raced for many years without these things happening.

"We've got all the technical expertise to do things safely. We've got manufacturers behind us for all kinds of crash tests.

"We seldom see this. We've been here for years and years. It's obvious we've got to make some serious adjustments."

Orr was the 27th person to die here since the track opened in 1959. It is the first time that the Winston Cup series has lost two drivers during Speedweek.

A third driver, Mark Thompson, who was injured Sunday during the ARCA 200 race, is listed in serious condition with three broken ribs, but was removed from intensive care.

Yesterday, NASCAR's Winston Cup director of competition, Gary Nelson, called Orr's crash "the worst wreck I've ever seen."

And in the garages, there was much speculation about the cause.

Many pointed out that neither Thompson, Orr nor even Bonnett was experienced here.

"Show me a driver who has sat home for three years and not done anything, and tell me he's kept up and improved as a driver," said former driver Richard Petty, when asked how Bonnett, a long-time competitor before his 1990 accident, could be included among the inexperienced.

Others looked for similarities in the accidents, and noted that Bonnett, Orr and Thompson had been driving cars with Hoosier tires.

Since Hoosier announced it was getting back in the sport last November, drivers, car owners and crew chiefs have been expressing concern that there would be a recurrence of the tire war situation in 1988 and 1989, when they contend tires were manufactured more for speed than safety.

Also, Yates said that new NASCAR rules have made the cars less stable in critical situations.

"When it [the car] gets on the apron, it no longer wants to stay there," said Yates.

"It used to be," he said, "that if a driver tried to correct down there, the rear end would slide up and smack into the wall a couple times and the driver would jump out and go get another race car.

"Now, because of the changes, the tendency is to spin back up on the track and aim right into the wall.

"We've seen it in every accident here so far."

NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams said the cars and the accidents are under investigation, but inspectors have drawn no conclusions.

"There is a group in the garage looking for an easy answer to a complex situation," Williams said. "We can't take the easy way out. We're looking. But part of our problem is we don't know what the questions are. If we knew exactly what to do, we'd do it right now."

In the meantime, practices and races will go on here. Another funeral will be held. And everyone will be more aware of the dangers.

"When I say it doesn't scare me, I'm not trying to act macho," said driver Bobby Hillin. "I just believe when God calls me to come, it'll be where he wants me to be. His will is his will and that's the only way I can make sense of this.

"My hope and prayer is that Neil and Rodney were ready."

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