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Track's Builders Go Extra Mile to Protect Fans

Safety: California Speedway already had measures in place before Michigan deaths in July, but preventing all debris from reaching spectators is difficult.


Safety has always been a major consideration of motor-racing speedway builders and promoters, but the death of three spectators in an accident last July 26 at Michigan Speedway has heightened concern.

How high should fences be to protect spectators from accidents on the track? A wheel was hurled over a 15-foot fence at Michigan that caused the fatalities. Michigan track authorities responded by raising the barrier to 17 feet.

But how much is enough? In 1987, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a wheel catapulted more than 80 feet above the track and killed a spectator standing on the highest row of the grandstand. The fence at Indianapolis is 19 feet.

"Our goal is perfection," said Greg Penske, president of Penske Motorsports Inc., owner of both the Michigan track and California Speedway, where the Marlboro 500, a CART FedEx champ car race, will be run Sunday. "We feel California Speedway is safe. It's unrealistic to think that nothing bad can happen, but we'll do everything in our power to prevent it."

At the Fontana facility, spectators are protected by a four-foot concrete wall topped by a nine-foot fence with a catch fence cantilevered out 3 1/2 feet to collect debris. The wall is four feet thick.

The fence, which circles the two-mile D-shaped track, is reinforced with six strands of three-quarter-inch steel cable. Fence posts are 18 feet apart and are set into the wall. The closest seat to the track is 22 feet from the fence, and the front row is more than 10 feet higher than the track.

"Our safety features were in place before the tragic accident at Michigan," said Les Richter, California Speedway executive vice president. "We have made no changes. We feel confident that what we have is adequate to do the job it is designed for, which is to catch and keep race cars inside the track."

There have been instances in which pieces of race cars have flown into the stands, however. During the Winston West race last May, a foot-long metal piece broke off a car and sailed into the stands along the front straightaway, although it did not hit anyone.

"It was lucky that the guy who had been sitting there had just left," said a spectator who was close by. "It was scary enough that we had our seats moved up 10 rows for the next race."

Track officials also said that small items, such as nuts and bolts, had reached spectators during last year's Marlboro 500, but none resulted in injuries.

At Michigan, when Adrian Fernandez's car crashed into the fourth-turn wall, the impact sent the right front wheel and other debris into the stands, killing Kenneth Fox, 38, of Lansing, Mich., and Michael Tautkus, 49, and Sheryl Laster, 40, of Milan, Mich. Six others were hospitalized with injuries, but all were released within two days.

The estate of Fox filed an $11-million wrongful-death lawsuit against Michigan Speedway on Sept. 2.

California Speedway carries year-around liability insurance, with additional coverage for each event.

There are nine first-aid stations on the 529-acre property--five at ground level outside the stands, four in the grandstands--and a fully staffed medical center in the infield for competitors and spectators, complete with a helicopter pad. Nine ambulances are also on the grounds on racing days.

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