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Tragedy at the track
IRL race canceled after three fans killed by flying debris
Posted: Monday August 16, 1999 04:09 PM
CONCORD, N.C. (CNN/SI) -- Tragedy struck open-wheel racing for the second time in less than a year Saturday night when crash debris killed three spectators attending the IRL's VisionAire 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
At least eight people also suffered injuries. The incident occurred in the Turn 4 grandstands following a three-car crash by John Paul Jr., Stan Wattles and Scott Harrington. Witnesses said a tire and suspension parts flew into the stands, causing the fatalities and injuries. None of the drivers was injured.
Early Sunday, Speedway officials identified two of the spectators killed as Randy D. Pyatte, 21, and Jeff Patton, no age available, both of Connelly Springs, N.C.
Area hospitals reported treating at least eight people, including one child who was in critical condition. Hailey McGee, 9, of Conover, was flown to Carolinas Medical Center in nearby Charlotte with bruises to her brain and lungs. Also flown to Carolinas was Jeremy Jones, no age given, of Connelly Springs. He was listed in serious condition with a chest injury.
Three people flown to University Hospital in Charlotte were listed in good condition. Wesley J. Rice, 29, of Newton, had a stomach injury; Matthew J. Picklesimer, 26, of Claremont, had a head laceration, and Amanda R. Shondelmyer, 11, Hickory, had a head laceration and an injured right shoulder.
Three of the injured were transported by ambulance to Northeast Medical Center in Concord. Nathaniel Blosser, 19, of Hickory, was treated for a puncture wound and released and David Duncan, 27, of Newton, was treated for a shoulder injury and also released. Chad Duncan, 22, of Conover, David's brother, was held overnight because of a leg injury but hospital officials said he likely would be released Sunday.
As rescue workers were attending to the injured, the track canceled the race.
"This is a terrible thing," said speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who went into the stands where the debris landed and tried to comfort some of the spectators. "It's very regrettable. It's something we'll live with for a very, very long time."
Ninety minutes after the crash, the nearly 50,000 spectators had filed out of the track and investigators were working at the accident scene, taking measurements and roping off the area.
In the 1.5-mile superspeedway's sprawling infield, about 200 drivers and crew members gathered for a somber prayer service.
"My teammates and I are just full of sorrow," 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families. The decision to stop the race was the right one. We all leave Charlotte with extremely heavy hearts."
John Paul Jr. and Stan Wattles slammed hard into the fourth-turn retaining wall on lap 61 of the 208-lap event and went spinning down the front stretch, collecting the car of Scott Harrington.
Television replays could not show conclusively what kind of debris flew into the stands. But Joe Tiano, a Hickory resident who was sitting about 150 feet away in a neighboring section of stands, said a wheel and suspension parts flew into the seats.
"It came up here like a rocket and then started bouncing around," Tiano said.
Authorities cleared the section of the stands and the race was red-flagged while emergency workers attended to the injured. While medical personnel worked, track security employees stood around them holding up white sheets.
"Everybody who was taking pictures had their cameras taken away by the cops," Tiano said.
One of the injured spectators was sitting in the 15th row, and the other two appeared to be about 10 rows higher.
Within minutes of the crash, the three drivers were examined at the infield care center and released, and about 15 minutes later, Wheeler went on the public address system to tell fans the race was being canceled.
"We've never done anything like this before," Wheeler said. "But it seemed like the right thing to do in respect to those who lost their lives up there."
The incident was similar to an accident last July in which three spectators were killed by debris after a racing crash at Michigan International Speedway. The track later increased the height of its catch fences by 21/2 feet, to 17 feet, in an effort to prevent a recurrence.
Charlotte's catch fences were raised to 15 feet in 1997 in preparation for the track getting its first IRL race. Charlotte has been holding NASCAR Winston Cup races since it opened in 1960.
Wheeler and IRL founder Tony George, who joined him at a hastily arranged news conference after the race was canceled, said they were unsure from which car the tire came. The cars of both Wattles and Paul were missing tires after the crash, but Wattles' impact occurred the closest to where the spectators were injured.
"Our hearts go out to everyone up in the stands," Wattles said after he was released from the infield care center.
They were the first spectator fatalities in the history of the track and the IRL, which was founded in 1996.
Charlotte allows spectators to sit in all rows of the track's seats for Winston Cup races, but for IRL races the speedway bans fans from sitting in the bottom seven rows closest to the racing surface.
"I think Charlotte's been one of the leaders in protecting and taking care of their spectators," said Leo Mehl, executive director of the IRL.
Ray fails inspection but wins VisionAire pole|
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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