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Fatal Attractions
Ed Hinton
May 10, 1999
More fan deaths put the focus on the need for safety innovations
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May 10, 1999

Fatal Attractions

More fan deaths put the focus on the need for safety innovations

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Dave Marcis


1982, Richmond


Brett Bodine


1990, N. Wilkesboro


Derrike Cope


1990, Dover


Ken Schrader


1991, Dover


Darrell Waltrip


1992, Darlington


Jimmy Spencer


1994, Talladega


Morgan Shepherd


1993, Atlanta


Bill Elliott


1994, Darlington


Kyle Petty


1995, Dover


Ward Burton


1995, Rockingham


After three spectators were killed, a nine-year-old girl critically injured and eight other fans hurt during an Indy Racing League event at Lowe's Motor Speedway (nee Charlotte Motor Speedway) last Saturday night, track president H.A. Wheeler pointed out that "every once in a while, unfortunately, auto racing raises the black side of itself." Once in a while? Last Saturday's tragedy, in which a tire and other debris from a three-car collision sailed over a 15-foot-high fence and landed in a crowded grandstand, marked the second time in nine months that spectators were killed as a result of crashes of open-wheel cars.

Last July 26 three fans were killed and six injured as the result of a similar accident during CART's U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway. Either incident without the other might have passed into memory as a grievous fluke. Together they should ignite a public outcry that doesn't dissipate until track officials devise a plan to prevent further episodes of this nature.

The surest solution is simple but unlikely to happen: The IRL and CART should stop racing open-wheel cars on high-speed oval tracks. CART, which runs 11 of its 20 races on road courses, where average race speeds are 94 mph compared with 140 on ovals, might survive in such a scenario. The IRL, which runs only on ovals, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, would have to rethink how it does business. At the very least the catch fences in front of the grandstands at oval tracks have to be uniformly raised to at least 25 feet high (most are now between 14 and 17 feet), and an overhang slanted toward the track should be added.

Open-wheel cars are built to disintegrate rapidly during crashes in order to dissipate energy and enhance driver safety. Trouble is, the flying debris, including loose tires that aren't contained by fenders, can be deadly to bystanders—especially those at oval layouts, where grandstands sit close to high-speed portions of the tracks. Also, on road courses, there are fewer concrete retaining walls to cause the potentially deadly breakup of cars.

In the wake of last year's Michigan tragedy, officials at Lowe's Motor Speedway banned fans from sitting in the first seven rows of its grandstands for IRL races and had fortified its 15-foot-high catch fence with steel cables. Unfortunately, the debris that caused last Saturday's deaths flew over the fence, just as it had at Michigan, where 15-foot-high fences were in place. ( Michigan's fences were raised to 17 feet after the accident.)

To the credit of Wheeler and IRL officials, the North Carolina race was stopped as soon as it was learned that fans had been seriously injured. (CART and Michigan Speedway officials were roundly criticized for allowing the U.S. 500 to continue to its finish after the deaths there.)

Unlike Formula One, which starting this season requires that its vehicles have tethers to keep loosened wheels and suspension parts connected to the car during crashes, neither the IRL nor CART demands such a system. IRL executive director Leo Mehl says his organization is concerned that tethered wheels or parts might snap back and hit drivers in their open cockpits, or that the tethers could become slingshots that launch wheels into the stands at even greater velocities. "You must be very cautious," Mehl says, "that you don't make regulations that will make things worse."

The IRL and CART are already troubled enough, owing to their split in 1996 and CART's ongoing boycott of the Indianapolis 500. However, both organizations must work together to keep flying car parts out of the stands. Their surviving fans deserve as much.

CART's Upstart Rookie
Montoya Driving Them Crazy

Juan Pablo Montoya, 23, is the hottest young driver CART has seen. In only his third start on the circuit, he won last month's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. With the exception of Nigel Mansell, who was 39 and coming off a Formula One world championship when he won in his first CART start, in 1993, no other driver has won earlier in his CART career than Montoya. Then on Sunday at Nazareth, Pa., Montoya won again, taking the lead in the points race, which was won the previous two seasons by his predecessor at Target/ Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Zanardi.

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