Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Racing fans don't expect to die

(This article first appeared on AutoRacing1.com on November 10, 2003)

It's a given that drivers risk their lives in motorsports. What fans do not expect, and cannot accept, is that their own lives might be in danger from the race cars. Recent incidents by Kenny Brack and Tony Renna remind us of the potential for death to drivers, but to spectators as well.

Far back in racing history was a time when fans were likely to be injured or killed during a race. The 1906 Vanderbilt cup saw the death of a child when a car struck spectators who'd entered the race area through a hole cut in the fence. Indy lost 2 spectators to race-related causes in its second 1909 race, plus one each in 1923 and 1938. The Mille Miglia was notorious for spectator deaths, losing 10 spectators (7 of which were children) in 1937, 4 (plus 3 drivers) in 1956, and an appalling 11 in 1957 after which it was banned.

The 1952 Watkins Glen Grand Prix resulted in one fan killed and 12 injured after a car left the track. Hundreds of small tracks around the nation recorded countless deaths of both drivers and spectators, the accounts of which are buried in local newspapers, such as the Winfield (Kansas) Daily Courier's account of the death of a young spectator in 1953 by a racer's tire.



Racing spectator safety as we know it started at LeMans in 1955. Speeds were hitting 150+ mph, in an era with no warning lights, no fire suits or safety cells, no roll cages, and most importantly, only earth embankments and wooden fences to separate spectators from competitors at LeMans. In the third hour a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh, traveling 150 mph, clipped a slowed car in front of the main grandstand and hurtled in flames into the crowd, acting like a giant scythe as it tore through the crowd. The vehicle's magnesium body resembled a giant sparkler as it burned. At least eighty-three people including Levegh died instantly, and some 16 of the 76 seriously injured died later from injuries.

The movie of the crash was shown around the world, and magazines like "Life Magazine" featured photos of the crash scene complete with priests giving last rites. Even before the end of the race Mercedes' management decided to withdraw from racing altogether, not to re-enter until 1999. France, Germany, and Switzerland canceled their national GP races; Switzerland banned all auto racing, and that ban is still in effect. In the aftermath, literally facing the end of auto racing, promoters gave new emphasis to spectator safety, and spectator deaths dropped drastically.

In modern times the emphasis on fan safety has not only been due to humanitarian concerns, but also due to liability, publicity and business concerns. After several incidents where cars became airborne during 200+ mph accidents at Daytona and Talladega, a 1987 crash by Bobby Allison tore down the fence on the front stretch during a race, and pressure by NASCAR's insurance carriers prompted the current restrictor plate and roof flap rules to protect fans.

In 1998 three fans were killed during the CART US 500 at Michigan International Speedway, beginning a downward spiral in attendance at MIS for open-wheeled racing that continues to this day, even though the Michigan fences were drastically improved. In 1999 three spectators were killed during an IRL race at Lowe's Motor Speedway; soon afterwards tire tethers were required in both series.

CART's road racing fans will remember the 1999 Gonzalo Rodriguez incident at Laguna Seca's corkscrew turn in which his car struck a wall head-on, flipped in the air over the wall, over a tree, landing outside of the track area. A year later Patrick Carpentier had a shunt out of the same track in turn 4. Neither resulted in fan injuries but both prompted changes to the track.

Recent incidents have brought the issue of fan safety to light again. Brack's accident ended the last IRL race early when his car went into the fence, tearing down large sections. While there are no video tapes of Renna's incident it is obvious that the car went airborne into the fence, disintegrated and major parts hit the facade of the grandstands. Indianapolis has not had a race-related spectator death since 1987 when Tony Bettenhausen Jr.'s tire struck a fan at the top of the grandstands, and the IRL has not had an incident since the 1999 Lowe's race, but perhaps we're living on borrowed time, like NASCAR before Earnhardt's death was the first in four driver deaths that season.

It is clear that pointy-nosed cars, traveling at current oval speeds, might exceed the ability of any fence to contain major auto parts, let alone protect fans from carbon fiber fragments and burning fluids. Fans do NOT expect, and will not accept, being the victims of on-track incidents, and a single major incident of this type might be the end of Indy-style open-wheeled racing.

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