Tragedy makes fan safety high priority for tracks

On Motor Sports

May 09, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Almost no one believes watching major-league auto racing is totally safe, but it had become easy to be lulled into a sense of security. The events of the last nine months in open-wheel racing have changed that.

Three fans died and eight others were injured (one critically) after being hit by debris from a three-car wreck May 2 in the Indy Racing League event at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. They were the first deaths in the track's 40 years of existence.

But it was the second accident in nine months involving multiple fan fatalities in open-wheel racing. Last July, three people were killed and six hurt when a wheel and suspension parts from Adrian Fernandez's car flew into the stands during CART's U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway.

Before that, the last fatal grandstand incident came at the 1987 Indianapolis 500, when a tire from Tony Bettenhausen's car ricocheted off Roberto Guerrero's car and into the stands. It killed a fan seated 80 feet above the track.

"We all recognize it to be the tragedy it is," said Denis McGlynn, president and chief executive officer of Dover Downs International Speedway. "It seems we're all more prepared to deal with the negative impact of the sport on the track than we are when it reaches into the grandstands."

The IRL came to Dover for the first time last year and is returning Aug. 1. When the tragedy occurred at Michigan, McGlynn and his staff immediately assessed their own situation.

"We decided to raise our fences 2 1/2 feet and add an overhang, something we've never had before," he said. "That work started the Friday before the accident at Charlotte -- that's the irony."

McGlynn said the Dover fences, which rise at an 87-degree angle above the track, will now be 15 feet high and then curve out several feet over the track to catch, he hopes, any straying wheels or other debris.

Michigan responded to the fatal accident last year by increasing its fence height and creating more of a canopy at the top. And Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the IRL next races in the Indianapolis 500, also has raised its fences and increased overhangs set at a 45-degree angle.

At Lowe's Speedway, the fence is 15 feet high and is capped by a 35-inch-long canopy positioned at a 45-degree angle over the track.

McGlynn said he is waiting for things to calm down in Charlotte before calling Lowe's Speedway president Humpy Wheeler. Wheeler has put his staff to work alongside IRL and police officials investigating the accident in the hope of finding ways to make sure it won't happen again.

"We have a lot of meetings on fan safety," said Wheeler, who remembers clearly the situation at Talladega about a decade ago when Bobby Allison's car almost flew into the grandstands.

NASCAR's reaction to that situation was to build higher and stronger fences and to attach restricter plates to the Winston Cup cars' engines to hold down speeds at high-banked super speedways.

"You think about having something like this happen, and you try to think of everything you can do to prevent it," Wheeler said. "It's a terrible, terrible responsibility on those who run speedways to make them as safe as possible. It's a violent sport. You never know what's going to happen. You have to take the known things that have happened and quantify them and learn from them."

Wheeler said he might consider adding more height to the fencing if the accident investigations show that could have made a difference.

In Dover, McGlynn said that, at a minimum, he has the ability to close certain grandstands and seat people higher if it appears practical.

"The unfortunate thing is that risk is an inherent part of the sport," McGlynn said. "And safety at the racetracks is an evolutionary progression. We can remember the days when cars flew through guardrails and out of the speedways. Now, there are big concrete walls and steel fences on top of the walls. Seat belts and rear-view mirrors and other safety equipment on passenger cars have evolved from things that have gone wrong on the racetracks.

"Not to trivialize what has occurred, but motor sports has always been pretty good at protecting the fans."

Nuts and bolts

Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon will have Superman on his hood at The Winston next month as part of nine-driver deal that will put the superhero on the cars of NASCAR, CART, NHRA and World of Outlaws champion drivers throughout the season. Among the drivers are Grand National champ Dale Earnhardt Jr., Funny Car champ John Force, Top Fuel champ Joe Amato and PPG Cup champ Jimmy Vasser.

ESPN Zone is host to the "RPM 2night" May Challenge, and auto racing is the theme of the month. Today, CART's fanfest trailer and the MCIW Champ car will be on display. On May 25, CART drivers Vasser and Jason Priestly will be there to talk about their most memorable racing experiences, take questions from the audience and sign autographs. And on May 29, the CART Motorola 300 will be on the big screen.

Darrell Waltrip's "Racers" radio show is heard five days a week on Maryland radio stations WMDM (1690 AM) in Lexington Park and WRHU (1450 AM) in Thurmont.

Michael Schumacher made the most of his first Formula One victory last Sunday at Imola, Italy, vaulting into the points lead: Schumacher, 16; Eddie Irvine, 12; Mika Hakkinen, 10; Heinz-Harald Frentzen, 10; and Ralf Schumacher, 7.

Defending IRL champ Kenny Brack has only 14 points and is ranked 27th. Scott Goodyear, whose team is partially owned by former Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, is first with 93 points, followed by Jeff Ward, 75; Eddie Cheever, 63; Scott Sharp, 61; and Mark Dismore, 56.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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