Deaths In Auto Racing
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. A Charlotte Observer investigation found at least 260 people across America have 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. Another 200 drivers and fans suffered traumatic injuries.
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. "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 a study of fatal wrecks since 1990, The Observer found these patterns:
Documented by The Observer were 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.
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 spokesman 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.
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 industry-wide. Safety information isn't routinely shared among groups, whose equipment and research is often considered proprietary.
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, N.C. "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.
The Charlotte 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." Dan Wheldon: 1978-2011 Drivers Dan Wheldon (front) and Will Power crash during a wreck that involved 15 cars during the IndyCar Series season finale on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 champion, died of his injuries following the crash. A married father of two, he was 33. Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jessica Ebelhar -
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