Tragedy marred the euphoria of Irwindale Speedway's grand opening Saturday when Casey Diemert, a sprint car driver from Roseburg, Ore., died of injuries suffered in a accident during early afternoon practice.
Diemert, 23, had just lapped Irwindale's half-mile, paved oval at slightly over 100 mph when a car stalled in the middle of the third and fourth turns. Several cars made it through between the car and the wall, but Diemert tagged the wall, sending his sprinter into a spin that flipped it upside down, sliding along the asphalt.
It took emergency crews nearly 25 minutes to cut the driver out of the car and transport him by helicopter to Arcadia Methodist Hospital, where authorities said he died at 2:52 p.m. of massive head injuries.
A yellow flag had been displayed for the stalled car, but it appeared that Diemert did not see it. No other car was involved in the accident.
Few in the more than 6,500 spectators who crammed Irwindale Speedway for its opening night of racing were aware of the accident, which occurred only a couple of minutes after the gates opened at 2 p.m. Only a few hundred were in the stands at the time.
Several observers said the roll cage appeared to have hit the wall when the car was gyrating. Before the badly damaged car was lifted on the wrecker, U.S. Auto Club officials covered No. 73 with a yellow tarp. The car was owned by Diemert's father, Jim, who was at the track.
Casey Diemert had been racing since he was 16, when he started driving street stocks on short tracks in Oregon. Last year he moved into USAC competition and drove a Silver Crown car as well as the family sprint car. In Saturday's first practice session, he was seventh fastest of the 30 entries.
Although the track announcer asked for cheers for Diemert when he was being lifted from the car, no announcement was made of the fatality to the crowd.
Where Diemert's car hit the pristine white wall, it left a smudge on the freshly painted "Irwindale Raceway" sign in the middle of the east end of the track.
A Who's Who of racing royalty came later for the opening ceremony festivities and a revival of short-track racing on a paved oval not seen since the closing of Saugus Speedway in July 1995. And never seen like this.
"This is the No. 1 short-track facility in the world," enthused Johnny Capels, USAC president. "It might be the best race track I've ever seen. It rates right up there with Bruton Smith's big tracks [Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., and Texas Motor Speedway]."
Roger Penske, whose Penske Motorsports built California Speedway a few miles to the east, and owns several other tracks, said, "This is just fantastic; it's hard to believe it's really here."
Other racing personalities in attendance included former Formula One champion Phil Hill, Indianapolis 500 winners Parnelli Jones, who drove the pace car, and Danny Sullivan, a member of Irwindale's board of directors; Dan Gurney, Carroll Shelby, actor James Garner and racing officials Chris Pook, Les Richter, J.C. Agajanian Jr. and Wally Park.
The car count of 93 was high for a USAC program, according to Tommy Hunt, USAC's head of western operations.
"We would have had more, but they couldn't get them built in time," Hunt said. "Once the word got out about this track opening, a lot of folks started building a lot of cars. There'll be a lot more the next time we race here."
Once the racing started--nearly an hour late because of the accident and a long ceremony--it was as anticipated, with midgets, sprint cars and super-modifieds running two- and three-wide through the sweeping turns. With USAC using inverted starts with the fastest qualifiers starting in the rear, there was plenty of action as Davey Hamilton in a super mod, Wally Pankratz and Jason Leffler in midgets and Bud Kaeding in a sprint car sliced through traffic to get to the front.
Hamilton, who flew from Phoenix where he was frustrated in an attempt to qualify his Indy Racing League car for today's MCI World Com200, established Irwindale's track record with a 15.655 second lap (approximately 116.3 mph) during super-mod qualifying. Hamilton's IRL car developed electrical problems and he was unable to make a qualifying run, so he will start at the rear of the field in today's 200-mile race.
Kaeding had the fastest sprint-car lap of 17.124 seconds, slightly quicker than Dave Steele's midget-car time of 17.198 seconds.
Hamilton, a veteran of two Indy 500s from Boise, Idaho, became Irwindale's first champion when he won the 30-lap super-modified feature. He took the lead from Jeff Helton on lap 11 and was never seriously challenged.
Mark Ekberg of Reedley finished second, 2.5 seconds behind, followed by Kelly Newman of Boise, Dave Lamborn of Carson City, Nev., Helton and Mark Beck of Carson City.
Kaeding won the sprint-car main event and Steele the midget feature.