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Tragedy at the track
Three spectators killed by flying debris at U.S. 500
Posted: Friday August 07, 1998 05:13 PM
BROOKLYN, Michigan (CNN/SI) -- An unforseen accident and a tragic bounce combined to kill three spectators and injure six others at Sunday's U.S. 500 CART event at Michigan Speedway.
Flying debris and a tire from driver Adrian Fernandez's wrecked car cleared the fourth-turn barrier wall and fence on lap 175 of the 250-lap race. The material hurtled into the stands after Fernandez lost control of his car and slammmed into the wall, striking spectators. Fernandez sustained bruises to both knees.
Lenawee County Sheriff Richard Germond identified the dead as Michael Terry Tautkus, 49, and Sheryl Ann Laster, 40, both of Milan, Michigan and Kenneth Dale Fox, 38, of Lansing. Witnesses said the accident happened so fast that the victims had no time to react.
"I think the people that got hit didn't even see it coming," said Mark Kuyers, a spectator from Holland, Michigan, who was sitting nearby when the tire and debris sailed into the stands. "It was completely a freak thing. The tire bounced a couple of times and landed in the walkway."
Dr. Gregory Baumann, the chief medical director at Michigan Speedway, said two of the people died instantly from the impact of the debris. The third person was taken to a track medical unit, where resuscitation failed.
The spectator deaths were the first in a racing accident at a major event in the United States in more than a decade.
Spectators sitting nearby in the packed stands said the tire did most of the tragic damage, bounding high off the top of the catch-fencing, slamming down and killing two people, then bouncing further up the grandstand into another knot of fans watching the race.
"I was watching [the tire] come toward the stands and, as people saw it coming down, they just started scrambling," said Tim VanderMel, of Waynesville, North Carolina, who was sitting close to Kuyers. "It was almost like it was in slow motion."
Both men said track security and medical personnel were on the scene almost immediately. Officials quickly cleared the grandstand where the tire hit and the race went on, with few of the teams and drivers, as well as most of the about 50,000 spectators unaware of the tragedy.
Canadian driver Greg Moore made the last of a record-shattering 62 lead changes on the final lap and to hold off Target-Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi for the victory.
The race continued because such events are rarely halted unless there is a dangerous situation on the track.
None of the six injuries was more serious than a fractured leg and four of the people were treated and released after being transported by ambulance to Foote Memorial Hospital in Jackson, about 30 miles from the track. The two who were admitted were in stable condition.
"The wall is 4 feet above the track surface and there's 11 feet of fence and cable," explained Greg Penske, president of Penske Motorsports Inc., which owns the track. "So there's 15 feet from the track surface to the top of the fence. One of the victims was in row eight and another was in approximately row 10."
"To say how high a fence would have to be to keep debris from going over would be impossible because it's impossible to say how high something would bounce or fly over," said Speedway president Gene Haskett.
Sunday's deaths marked the first spectator fatalities at the track since 1969, when one fan was killed during a Trans-Am race on the road course, and the first ever on the Michigan oval.
They also were the first fatalities at a Championship Auto Racing Teams event -- or any other major oval track race in the United States -- since the 1987 Indy 500, when a tire came off a car and was struck by Roberto Guerrero's car, sending it into the top row of the grandstand and killing a fan.
There have been other spectator deaths in the ensuing years at drag races and other events.
Fernandez, who was running third at the time of the accident on the 2-mile, high-banked oval, said he was unaware of the injuries in the stands until he was told later. He was treated and released at the infield medical center.
In the late going, it appeared either Vasser or Zanardi, the Target-Ganassi Racing teammates who had combined to win six consecutive races, including the last four in a row by Zanardi, were going to win the wild 500-mile event.
The last of seven caution flags came out on lap 241 when Gil de Ferran, who was running second at the time, blew his engine. That left Vasser in the lead, Zanardi second and Moore fourth, just behind former Michigan winner Scott Pruett.
On the restart with five laps to go, Vasser got a good jump, while Moore, the 23-year-old Canadian, quickly sped past Pruett and took a bead on the two Ganassi drivers. The aggressive youngster, who came up with his second win of the season and the fourth of his career, led for part of lap 148, but then slipped behind Vasser.
He stayed in second on lap 249, fending off Zanardi's challenge, then went after the leader at the start of the last lap. Driving for Player's Forsythe Racing, Moore tucked his Reynard-Mercedes underneath Vasser's Reynard-Honda heading into the first turn of the 250th lap, then grabbed the lead and pulled away to the victory. Vasser barely held on to beat Zanardi for second place in a photo finish.
"It was flat out from beginning to end," Moore said. "I knew the Mercedes (engine) would be reliable enough. You just had to get the breaks. We stalled the car twice in the pits because we had a bit of a mechanical problem, but we managed to bounce back."
"I just led the wrong lap," said Vasser, the 1996 U.S. 500 winner. "I had to give Greg room. After the restart, I had 10 car-lengths, but suddenly they came flying right past me."
The Handford Device, a bulky, boxy rear wing intended to add drag to the cars and slow them, was used for the first time under race conditions. It kept speeds under 230 mph, but the new aerodynamics made for NASCAR-like drafting and passing, creating closer racing than usual for the open-wheel cars.
The previous record for lead changes in a 500-mile open-wheel race was 27, set at Michigan in 1982 and matched in 1985.
Ten drivers were on the lead lap at the end, with Pruett third, followed by Richie Hearn, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Patrick Carpentier, Paul Tracy and Bryan Herta.
Robby Gordon and J.J. Lehto also had one-car incidents. Gordon was not injured and Lehto came away with a bruised right knee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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