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Danger Always There in Racing

Motor sports: Tragedy at Michigan Speedway brings decision to continue race, safety issues into focus.

July 29, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For as long as there have been automobile races, one great fear has been that a car might break loose and careen into a spectator area.

The major fear is for wholesale loss of life, but there is an underlying fear as well, that a major disaster could end racing.

Such a wide-scale disaster hasn't happened since nearly 100 were killed at LeMans, France, in 1955, but what happened Sunday, when three people were killed and six others injured during the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway near Brooklyn, Mich., was tragedy enough.

Adrian Fernandez, the pole-sitter, was running third at more than 200 mph when his car lost traction in the fourth turn and slammed into the outside retaining wall. The impact caused a tire-wheel combination and other debris from his car to sail into a grandstand.

Open-wheel cars such as those driven in CART and the Indy Racing League are engineered to break apart at impact, thus dissipating the crash forces on the driver. When cars were built rigid, there were crashes in which the car appeared almost undamaged but the driver was killed by the sudden impact.

In Sunday's crash, the car broke apart, as it was supposed to, and Fernandez suffered nothing more serious than bruised knees. But the flying debris somehow cleared a catch-fence and resulted in disaster in the stands.

News of the deaths was withheld from drivers, teams, reporters and the TV audience until after the race, even though it was apparent something terrible had happened. The grandstand area where the accident had occurred was evacuated and the bodies were covered and left in place.

"When there are fatalities involved, the medical examiner has to come in and do an investigation," said Gene Haskett, president of Michigan Speedway. "Therefore, the bodies cannot be removed until after the investigation is complete. I know that that is very difficult for the fans to understand, especially when they could have witnessed it, but we had to wait for the medical examiner. It's the law."

The accident occurred on Lap 175 of the 250-lap race--about 3:30 p.m. EDT--but no announcement was made until 4:30 p.m., after Greg Moore had taken the checkered flag.

People watching on ABC-TV were never told of the fatalities, even though they had seen pictures of the wheel flying off Fernandez's car and into the stands.

"We can only rely on information that the track gives us," said Mark Mandel, an ABC spokesman. "At least twice during the telecast, we talked to track representatives for information. They said, 'Yes, there was an incident,' but they never told us there were any fatalities.

"After we went off the air, we were informed of them, and during a break in the next program, the Tour de France, our announcer, Robin Roberts, put the information on the air. We certainly would have given it out during the race if we had obtained it."

According to Ron Richards, CART vice president for communications, the only person who can make such an announcement is the medical director in charge at the event. Sunday, that was Dr. Gregory Baumann of Penske Motorsports.

"The first announcement made by anyone was at 4:30 p.m. by Dr. Baumann," Richards said. "He could not make it sooner because he was at the scene of the accident, tending to the injured. Greg Penske's first concern was to have Dr. Baumann at the site immediately. [Greg Penske is president of Penske Motorsports.]

"Nothing could be released until the doctor could do it. That is the procedure followed by both the sanctioning body [CART] and the race facility [Michigan Speedway]. We made [the announcement] the minute the doctor was available."

The race continued as if nothing had happened, which has been widely criticized.

"Let me explain why," Haskett said. "First, when we arrived at the scene we knew that there were serious and multiple injuries. We did not know how many were injured and so our complete focus was the immediate needs of the injured parties.

"Once we started doing that, it just kept going in the same direction and even as the race was going on behind us, the medical people, the emergency people, the fire-and-rescue [teams] continued to do their job. We knew that with multiple injuries, we were going to be transporting several people to the hospital.

"We didn't stop to make a decision [to continue the race], we just kept doing our job. In retrospect now, if we had stopped the race, we wouldn't have been able to get the ambulances to the hospital and the crowd control would have been very difficult. So, in light of everything that had happened, to continue to run the race was the right thing to do."

The wheel, which weighed 27 pounds, and the suspension parts, which weighed 12-15 pounds, flew over a four-foot wall topped with 11 feet of cable and wire. Why wasn't the fence higher, some concerned racing fans asked.

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