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Spectator Deaths Tragic but Rare

May 5, 1999

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ The deaths of three spectators at Michigan last year and three others at Charlotte last week attest to the dangers of auto racing. Constant improvements in safety, however, have made such tragic incidents rare at major U.S. tracks.

``While we make every effort to minimize risk, we cannot remove all risk, either to spectators or to participants,″ an Indianapolis Motor Speedway spokesman said Tuesday.

The three fans at Michigan Speedway died when a tire and other debris hurtled into the crowd after a crash in the Championship Auto Racing Teams U.S. 500 last July. On Saturday, three spectators were killed and eight were injured when crash debris flew into the stands during the Indy Racing League’s VisionAire 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

The catch fences shielding spectators at both tracks were 15 feet high.

``The fences do a very good job in keeping most debris on the track,″ IMS vice president Fred Nation said. ``It does happen every once in a while on a short track. But it’s rare.

``The spectator fatalities certainly are rarer today than in the past, especially considering the dramatic increase in the numbers of people attending races and the number of events.″

The spectator fatalities at Charlotte were the first at an IRL race and the first for the track, which opened in 1960. The last race-related death of a spectator at a major U.S. track before last year was at Indianapolis in 1987, when a tire bounced over the fence and into the grandstand after a crash, killing a man.

In 1993, as part of a track reconstruction in preparation for the first NASCAR Brickyard 400 the next year, the fencing at Indy was raised a little more than 4 feet to 19 feet, 8 inches most of the way around the 2 1/2-mile oval.

Horizontal cables running along the wall also were installed to help prevent cars crashing into the stands. The Speedway also built a 6-foot overhang at a 45-degree angle atop the fencing.

``The reason for that is that cars tend to have incidents against the outside walls, and debris goes up as well as out,″ Nation said. ``We believe this fencing, the height and overhang, is appropriate for the contours of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but that every track is different.

``Tracks that have a different configuration are not necessarily unsafe. Each has to be looked at, considering the conditions, the banking, the length, the speed attained on those tracks.″

The crash at Charlotte is still being investigated.

``We’re trying to gather the material that will allow the league officials and the speedway to recreate the accident if possible and try to learn from that,″ IRL spokesman Ron Green said.

The catch fence where the accident occurred at Charlotte, near the exit of the fourth turn, is topped with a 35-inch overhang. The track spent more than $1 million on various safety improvements, including raising the height of the fence 2 feet before its first IRL race in 1997, and officials are looking into raising the fence again, as well as extending the overhang.

At Indianapolis, more changes to protect drivers and spectators already are under way as part of a track renovation for its first U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race next year.

``In turns two and four we are constructing full concrete walls and debris fencing extending up 17 1/4 feet (in the infield),″ Nation said. ``They replace some metal barriers and smaller fences that were there before. ... Over the years, we have continually upgraded the infield side, even though that’s a much lower risk area.″

The new fencing will be completed in time for the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, he said.

Before the CART race last year, recent spectator deaths in the United States _ all on short tracks or on drag strips _ included one at the Green Hill (N.C.) Motor Speedway in 1997, when the driver suffered a heart attack and crashed into the stands; and at an NHRA drag race at Warrenton, Va., in 1996, when a woman sitting in the grandstand was struck and killed and her son critically injured by an out-of-control dragster.

In 1995, a spectator was killed and another slightly injured when a tire flew off a race car at Duck River Speedway in Nashville, Tenn.; a spectator was struck and killed by a tire that cleared a safety fence at a stock car race at Unity, Maine; and three people were killed when a dragster jumped a guardrail and plowed into the crowd in Cumberland, Va.

Nine spectators have been killed in the 90-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and two of those occurred when a homemade scaffolding collapsed in the infield in 1960.

Less than a week after the Michigan deaths last year, two spectators received minor injuries when they were hit by small pieces of fiberglass that cleared the catch fence after a multi-car crash during an IROC race at Indianapolis. In the same incident, two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk suffered a mild concussion when his car slammed against the inside wall at an area covered by a new shock-absorbing material.

``We’re working on an improved version of that,″ Nation said. ``It also impacts spectator safety, because the more impact absorbed by the wall, the less likely there will be debris to fly around and possibly into stands.″