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Article on racing-related deaths


Legendary Member
3 February 2000
A surprising toll: 260 dead
Fatal accidents aren't flukes: The average is 22 a year
The Charlotte Observer

When someone dies in auto racing, it's often called a freak thing or a fluke - so isolated and rare it can't happen again.

But deaths aren't as rare or isolated as the racing world believes. An Observer investigation found at least 260 people across America died in auto racing since 1990. Patterns are evident; deaths occur an average of 22 times a year.

Among those killed were 29 spectators, including five children.

An additional 200 drivers and fans suffered traumatic injuries.

In this year alone, a grandmother in a wheelchair was killed in the grandstands at an Ohio track; a Florida driver was decapitated when he hit a guardrail; and driver Dean Roper died 10 months after his son, Tony, was killed in a wreck in Texas.

"That is not acceptable," said Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who like other racing leaders guessed the death toll was half of what The Observer found. "This is something the industry has to deal with. We have a moral obligation."

The toll also surprised former Indy racing champion Mario Andretti. "We know how to make cars go fast," he said. "Now maybe we should spend even more time and energy in making cars safer."

Stock car racing legend Richard Petty, whose grandson died in a racing wreck, was surprised by the number, but characterized it as tolerable, given the 12-year span of the study. "That's a lot of racing," he said.

No one keeps track of how many people die in racing. Since most deaths are deemed freak accidents, the sport has been slow to detect patterns and make changes that might save lives.

In a study of fatal wrecks since 1990, The Observer found these patterns:

Fences and barriers fail regularly.

In addition to the 29 spectator deaths, at least 70 were injured. Track owners say car parts and debris commonly clear fences, which vary in height from about 9 to 22 feet on oval tracks, and, typically, 4 to 6 feet on drag strips. Walls and guardrails have failed to keep cars on smaller tracks. Spectators are allowed into high-risk areas; some tracks allow children into garages and pits, the least protected areas.

Potentially dangerous drivers are allowed to race.

Except in top divisions, drivers are rarely screened for experience or health problems. Since 1990, at least 32 drivers died from heart attacks while racing, sometimes hurting other drivers or fans. Children too young for a driver's license can race at many tracks. Drivers with revoked licenses or drunk driving convictions are allowed to compete.

Head and neck injuries killed at least half the drivers.

Superstar Dale Earnhardt's death in February drew attention to the need for head restraints, which NASCAR in October mandated for its top-level races. But a majority of U.S. racers don't wear restraints. Most track owners and racing groups don't require them.

Medical response can be inadequate.

Emergency preparedness varies, depending on a track's size and resources. In at least 18 instances, families of dead and injured drivers say the rescue response was inadequate. Some small tracks provide untrained rescuers and no ambulances or firetrucks.

"Racing has become so popular that everybody wants a piece of it...but nobody wants to take responsibility for safety," said Dr. Terry Trammell, an Indianapolis surgeon and consultant for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). "A few groups try to do the right thing, but the industry is so fragmented that you have some terribly unsafe racing going on."

In more than 400 interviews, plus newspaper and Internet searches, The Observer documented 260 deaths in all levels of U.S. auto racing - from premier Winston Cup and Indy car events to dirt-track races. The study began with deaths in 1990, when more media and databases became available on the Internet. The study excluded deaths from youth go-karts, motorcycles, monster trucks, mud racing and racing schools.

Among the dead were 204 drivers, 29 spectators, 24 track workers and crew, and three journalists. The tally is likely low because some deaths receive little, if any, media attention.

The study shows, on average, 14 drivers die in crashes yearly; three others die of health problems on the track.

For comparison, in football, four players die from injuries playing the sport each year, and nine from health problems, such as heatstroke, on the field.

But more people play football than race. About 1.8 million play football each year, from sandlot to pro leagues. Estimates of drivers range from 50,000 to 400,000. Using the highest number, which results in the most conservative estimate, racing's rate of death is more than five times that of football's.

Dangerous, with a growing appeal

In the 1990s, auto racing's popularity boomed. Attendance doubled at NASCAR's Winston Cup events. Eleven major racetracks were built or planned for stock cars and the sleeker open-wheeled cars.

The sport went Hollywood with its marketing, and to Wall Street, where stock in racing organizations is now traded. In 2001, NASCAR landed a six-year, $2.4 billion television deal.

The sport's speed and power, which draw fans, also make it inherently dangerous. Promoters say they need danger.

"It's not a blood sport people want. The loudest roar you'll ever hear from a crowd is when a driver who appears to be seriously hurt gets up and walks away," said Lowe's speedway President Wheeler. "But you've got to walk the line - and it's a tough line to walk. You've got to have some danger or it gets boring and nobody wants to watch."

Leaders say racing is safer than it once was because they constantly evaluate and improve safety. But even racing insiders call it a reactive industry with too many deaths.

"We recognize that we need to get ahead of the curve instead of constantly being reactive," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, whose stock-car governing body is among the largest of 200 groups that organize races.

NASCAR officials have been "Neanderthals" in their data collection and accident investigation, Hunter said.

Earnhardt's death, and the questions it raised, intensified NASCAR's attention to safety. In addition to mandating head restraints, it plans to install crash data recorders in its premier cars, as CART has done. It also plans a research center that will study both safety and competitive issues.

"It's a whole new world since Dale Earnhardt died," said Hunter.

But even Earnhardt's death hasn't united the fragmented racing industry. Except for a few elite racing groups, most of the 200 race organizers conduct little - if any - accident analysis, which could more quickly identify patterns or risky conditions. When safety improvements are made, they aren't adopted industrywide. And safety information isn't routinely shared among groups, whose equipment and research is often considered proprietary.

"These are basically 1,000 independent businesspeople across the country," said Allan Brown, publisher of The National Speedway Directory. "It's very difficult to pin down what's going on out there."

About half of all U.S. races are controlled by those 200 racing organizations, which generally schedule and promote the events. Most make few - if any - demands on driver or fan safety.

About 10 of those groups, the largest and most influential in the U.S. racing industry, control about 25 percent of the races across America, said Brown, who contacts almost every track annually.

Among the most popular and safety-conscious are CART and Indy Racing League, which have about 150 drivers. Their fenderless cars top 200 mph. They collect detailed information on every accident within their divisions, which they say helps identify patterns and reduce injuries. Since 1990, CART has had two drivers die in the United States. IRL has not had a driver death. Both groups, however, have had accidents that resulted in fan deaths. Now, they require that tires be tethered to cars.

The balance of the 200 racing groups control another 25 percent of races. Most of those are merely networks of drivers who just want a place to race.

Then there are the independents - the small-track owners who stage their own races and run their own tracks as entrepreneurs. They control the remaining 50 percent of races, and are the most cost-sensitive to safety measures.

"If some group wants to put too many rules on me, they don't come in here," said Russell Hackett, owner of Caraway Speedway in Asheboro. "Nobody's going to tell me how to run my business."

His track is safe, he said, because: "You learn through years of doing it." Caraway's one death, he said, "was a freak thing. It was just the way he hit."

Racing organizations generally leave safety to the track owners. Track owners tend to rely on insurance companies to tell them what's safe.

Insurance companies say they're not safety experts either. They sell insurance based on risks.

"Just because a track is insured doesn't mean it's safe," said Len Ashburn, a retired insurance agent who specialized in racetrack policies.

Dr. Trammell, the CART consultant, visits tracks to help CART determine hazards. "There's no manual for how you build or inspect a track, and because there's no book and there's nothing organized, track owners build something just like all the rest of the tracks," he said. "... All you do is perpetuate the same old mistakes."

The Observer study found most deaths happened at the small tracks. But major raceways - which make up 4 percent of America's 1,300 tracks - accounted for a disproportionate 20 percent of deaths.

NASCAR had at least 36 deaths of drivers and fans - more than any other racing group. Nineteen died at NASCAR-run races, including eight in its Winston Cup series, where speeds are highest. The other 17 died at small tracks where NASCAR sanctions races but leaves safety to local operators.

NASCAR uses the short-track races to help develop drivers and widen its exposure, NASCAR's Hunter said. "We try to pick tracks and owners we think are responsible, but we don't run the race. It's the track's responsibility to make sure they run a safe event."

This year has been among racing's worst, with 33 deaths, 29 at small tracks. In June, seven drivers died in seven states, all at small tracks. A wreck at Lorain County Speedway in Ohio killed one fan and hurt 13.

"I almost lost my children at a sports event," said Ginger Jakupca of Akron, Ohio, whose children were injured. "There's just no excuse for that."

Are fans protected?

Depending on a track's size, protection for fans ranges from reinforced fences and concrete walls to dirt mounds, which can serve more as launch pads than shields.

Cars and parts can turn into lethal projectiles. Drivers crashed through - or over - barriers, striking scoreboards, flag stands, trees and bleachers.

A 10-year-old boy and his younger sister were killed in 1993 when a tire cleared the fence at a small Kansas track. Three fans died in 1998 in Michigan, and three more in 1999 near Charlotte, when car parts cleared the fences at two major tracks.

Protection is particularly poor around infield, garage and pit areas - where spectators wander amid working crews and moving vehicles. Fences and barriers in those areas are typically less substantial than those guarding stands.

At least nine spectators and 12 crew and track workers died in pits and infields.

Rene Bourgois, 34, was killed and 21 were injured at Stockton (Calif.) Speedway in 1993, when a car crashed through a pit fence and into seats for drivers and crew. A father of triplets died at an Auburn, Mich., track in 1999 when a car hit him in the infield. And in 1996, at Indiana's Salem Speedway, a 7-year-old girl visiting her father in the infield was killed when a tire hit her head.

Some tracks bar fans from these high-risk areas; others charge them extra to visit. People who enter the infield and pits must sign waivers promising not to sue - even when race organizers are negligent. Courts typically uphold such waivers, which allow tracks to avoid installing safety measures.

"You know what those waivers do? It gives them the power to kill you, and there's nothing you can do about it," said Ron Landrum, whose 71-year-old father was killed in 1996 by a tire in the pit at Texas' Thunderbird Speedway.

Drivers take the risk

Richard Petty best defines drivers' acceptance of fate. His grandson, Adam, died in 2000 when his car struck a wall in New Hampshire. He doesn't blame racing. "If he was in an airplane, we wouldn't blame airplanes," he said.

Drivers need to believe it won't happen to them. "You get a guy who drives a race car, he's a little like a hunter who could get shot, but he's never thinking about getting shot," Petty said.

Families of drivers also have to accept fate. They have little recourse because drivers, too, sign waivers that release organizers from responsibility.

The youngest driver to die since 1990 was Jimmy Olson, 15. He suffered head injuries last year when he crashed his pickup into a concrete wall at Wisconsin's Lake Geneva Raceway. He wasn't wearing a head restraint, and didn't have a driver's license. Most states, including the Carolinas, don't require a license to race.

Lowe's speedway President Wheeler allows children as young as 12 to race against each other in smaller, less powerful cars. But putting a child in a full-size car to race with adults, "is like giving a kid a .357 magnum with a feather-light trigger and telling him to scratch his head with the barrel," said Wheeler.

California's Del Quinn - known as "The Mighty Quinn" - was the oldest driver to die. The 68-year-old retired electrician had crossed the finish line at Hanford's King Speedway when he had a heart attack in 2001.

In 1997, at a now-closed speedway in Rutherford County, N.C., a driver had a heart attack and careened off the track, killing a retired truck driver who pushed his girlfriend to safety.

Inexperienced drivers also elevate danger. Most small tracks don't screen drivers for experience. Large tracks, too, host events for the inexperienced. At Lowe's Motor Speedway, three drivers were killed in separate races for novices.

ARCA (Auto Racing Club of America) is a developmental division that helps drivers move from short tracks into the large ovals, but the group draws criticism for its drivers' skills.

Julius "Slick" Johnson of Florence, S.C., died at Daytona in a 1990 ARCA race. His car went into a spin; a driver behind him slammed into his car.

"I didn't want him to go," said his wife, Janice. "We all knew there were going to be a lot of rookie drivers."

Rescue teams often lacking

Some small tracks provide poorly trained fire and rescue workers. Some have firetrucks and ambulances standing by; some don't. Drivers and fans rush to accident scenes, occasionally hampering rescue efforts.

Delmar "Junior" Riggins' gas tank exploded in a 1999 wreck at Oklahoma's Enid Motor Speedway - where there was no firetruck on site. Extinguishers were used to fight the fire, but Riggins, 44, died from his burns.

Driver Doug Wolfgang - trapped in his burning car for eight minutes in a 1992 wreck - won a $1.2 million verdict against Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and the World of Outlaws sanctioning body. Wolfgang's case focused on inadequate rescue measures.

"We proved beyond a shadow of a doubt it was gross, wanton negligence," said Wolfgang, who endured 15 reconstructive surgeries. "But the truth is now that 9 1/2 years have passed, nothing has changed. ...It's a forgotten issue again."

3 Deaths in past month

The Oct. 4 death of driver Blaise Alexander Jr. was the most recent highly publicized crash. Despite seven months of clamor about requiring head restraints, he didn't wear one. He died at Lowe's Motor Speedway from a head injury similar to Earnhardt's.

Since then, at least two more drivers have died.

On Oct. 19, Billy Anderson died in Minnesota of complications from a 1998 wreck at Iowa's Knoxville Speedway. It was that track's third fatality in six years.

Anderson broke his neck when he ran over the wheel of another car and flipped. For three years, he was in a wheelchair, unable to talk. His wife nursed him through recurring infections. "This was a freak accident but it can happen to anybody and that's what people need to realize," said Jenny Anderson.

On Oct. 21, two days after Anderson died, Jimmy Jones was killed at Indianapolis Raceway Park when his car went into a spin and was hit by another car. Drivers had no radio warning of Jones' trouble. Race organizers had banned radios, a safety tool, to help drivers save money.

Five days later, a track pace car led the procession from the funeral home to the grave for the 26-year-old father of two young children.

"I don't want this to keep happening," said his mother, Sue, a day after the funeral. "Something has to be done. We've got to stop burying these boys."