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Three Spectators Die at U.S. 500

Motor racing: Debris from one-car crash causes fatalities; six others injured. Moore goes on to win race with record 62 lead changes.

July 27, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Three spectators were killed and six others injured by a wheel and other crash debris that flew into the stands in the U.S. 500, a CART championship at Michigan Speedway in which most of the drivers did not know of the tragedy until after the race.

The accident, the worst involving spectators in a major modern U.S. race, occurred on lap 175 of the 250-lap race when pole-sitter Adrian Fernandez lost control of his Reynard-Ford and it slid into the wall at better than 200 mph. The impact sheared off the right front wheel and it catapulted over a four-foot wall and an 11-foot fence into the grandstands.

An on-board impact sensor measured Fernandez's impact at 92 Gs. His only injuries were bruises to the inside of both knees.

"Paul Tracy was coming up to the inside behind me and he took the air off me," said Fernandez, who had led nine laps before the crash. "He didn't hit me, but he went into the inside of me and instead of keeping his line, he went straight up and I got up high and there was nothing I could do."

Two spectators were killed immediately and another died at a track care center after resuscitation efforts, said Dr. Greg Baumann, speedway medical director.

Officials identified the spectators who died as Michael Terry Tautkus, 49, and Sheryl Ann Laster, 40, of Milan, Mich., and Kenneth Dale Fox, 38, of Lansing, Mich.

The other six were transported to W.A. Foote Memorial Hospital in nearby Jackson. Four treated and released were: David Silva, 25, of Dearborn, Mich.; Gerald Bramer, 31, of Livonia, Mich.; Richard Bramer, 20, also of Livonia; and Joyce Thompson, 48, of Spring Arbor, Mich. Two remaining in the hospital for further treatment were Doris Shuman, 70, of West Bloomfield, Mich., and Steve Dawson, 31, of Lansing, Mich.

"Just for a split second, out of the corner of my eye, I caught what looked like something flying," said Mark Kuyers of Holland, Mich., who has been coming to races here for eight years. "I think the people that got hit didn't even see it coming.

"It was completely a freak thing," he said. "The tire bounced a couple of times and landed in the walkway."

Tim VanderMel, of Waynesville, N.C., sitting close to Kuyers amid the crowd of 60,000, said he saw the tire headed toward the stands.

"As people saw it coming down, they just started scrambling. It was almost like it was in slow motion," VanderMel said.

The area where the fans were hit included a block of seats for which the Foote hospital had complimentary tickets, and one of the injured worked at the hospital, hospital spokeswoman Robin Kirkpatrick said.

Spectator Gerald Bramer said he threw up his arm to block the tire from Fernandez's car as it brushed by him. It hit Bramer's brother, Rich, in the back, but neither was injured seriously.

Becky Lutgen, a Lansing, Mich., TV news director, said she didn't see the tire from Fernandez's car until it hit the stands and landed about four or five rows away. "It ricocheted in the stands and came to rest between some rows. It went by so fast," Lutgen said.

Witnesses said track security and medical personnel were on the scene almost immediately. They quickly cleared the grandstand.

With 75 laps to go, track officials decided to keep the race running. Racing is rarely halted unless there is a dangerous situation on the track itself.

"I can only express the deep sorrow felt by everyone within the CART community," CART chairman Andrew Craig said in a statement. "There is, of course, nothing that we can say or do that in any way will reduce the deep sadness felt by the families and friends of the victims, but, on behalf of all of us at CART, I extend our heartfelt sympathies."

Gene Haskett, the Michigan speedway president, said there is no way to say how tall a fence should be to prevent this kind of an accident.

"It's impossible to say how high something would bounce or fly over," he said. "Thirty-one years of racing here on the oval and this being our first incident of this nature is just something that's very, very unfortunate."

It was the first spectator fatality at Michigan Speedway since May 11, 1969, when a car driven by Horst Kwech hit an onlooker on a since-closed road course during the Wolverine Trans Am.

Sunday's accident was similar to a fatality at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987 when a loose tire off Tony Bettenhausen's car was flipped by Roberto Guerrero's car into the stands where it killed a fan standing on the top row during the Indianapolis 500.

Racing's worst moment came on June 11, 1955, when a race car careened into the spectator area at Le Mans, France, and killed 83 people on that day. By the end of the year, it was estimated that nearly 100 had died from the tragedy.

At the Michigan Speedway, the spectators' deaths turned the race, which was one of the most competitive in CART history, into a footnote in the record books.

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