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Vietnam vets, motorcycles, a speedway -- and a tragic ending

April 03, 2012|By David Zucchino

Durham, N.C. — The weekend celebration at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was intended to honor Vietnam veterans, some of whom arrived on motorcycles. By the time it ended late Saturday, two veterans -- ages 71 and 66 -- were dead. Their motorcycles collided on the racetrack after the Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Celebration had ended.

Witnesses told local newspapers that motorcycles were being driven wildly around the track, some in opposite directions, just before the collision.  Two motorcycles collided at one of the steepest banks on the track, killing Thomas Franklin Hollingsworth, 71, of Piedmont, S.C., and Alan Richard Mockus, 66, of Alto, Ga.

Mockus’ wife, Deborah Lynn Mockus, who was riding on the back of his motorcycle, was badly injured. She was listed in critical condition at a Charlotte, N.C., hospital.

Witnesses told the Charlotte Observer that the motorcycle ridden by Mockus went out of control, slid down a bank, and crashed into the motorcycle ridden by Hollingsworth.

The police department in Concord, N.C., which had stationed officers at the track, has provided little information on the collision and has not said whether alcohol was involved. Beer was served at the event, attended by 62,500 people, including 2,000 motorcyclists.

Barry Burke, a coordinator for the Rolling Thunder, a motorcycle club made up mostly of Vietnam veterans, told the Observer that all motorcyclists were told to drive under 35 mph and only on the apron, which runs below the actual racetrack.

The only time motorcycles were to be on the track was during opening and closing processions, Burke said. But the motorcycles that collided were being driven on the track about a half-hour after the closing procession of motorcycles had left the event, according to witnesses.

"It’s extremely unfortunate that these individuals could not abide by guidelines set for their own safety,’’ Burke said. "Just because they wanted to ride up there on the high bank for whatever reason, two people are now dead.’’

Scott Cooper, vice president of communications for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, said in a statement that proper safety procedures were in place for the entry and exit of motorcycle processions.

"Unfortunately, one reckless incident brought about a sad ending to an otherwise wonderful day of tribute for American heroes,’’ the statement said.

Shawn Lane, 46, a witness, told the Observer that motorcyclists, some without helmets, were driving recklessly in both directions across a steeply banked section of the speedway.

"So many folks who had never been on the track before took the liberty of driving around the track, and it’s very steep in the curve,’’ Lane said.

A communications officer with the Concord Police Department declined to comment Tuesday, beyond reading from three brief news releases issued by the department. A phone message left by The Times with the department spokesman, Maj. Allen Overcash, was not returned.

Hollingsworth’s niece, Gini Miller of Piedmont, S.C., told the Observer that her uncle wanted to take one last lap before leaving the event.

"He was wearing all the proper equipment and taking all of the proper precautions,’’ Miller said. "We just believe it was a freak accident.’’

Cindy Spada, of South Glastonbury, Conn., a niece of Alan and Deborah Mockus, told the newspaper that organizers should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

"They know peoples’ nature," Spada said. "They shouldn’t have let them on there to begin with."

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david.zucchino@latimes.com


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