Drag Show Will Go On as Scheduled : Racing Program Is Set for Sunday at Anaheim Stadium

Times Staff Writer

Promoter Mickey Thompson's drag racing show will go on as scheduled Sunday in Anaheim Stadium, where more than 20 people were injured last Saturday night when a dragster crashed and spewed wreckage into the stands.

"At this point, there has been no discussion of postponing or canceling Sunday's stadium racing," said Sheri Erlewine, public information officer for the city of Anaheim.

"We have been reviewing what happened with the police department, but as far as we are concerned, it's business as usual. We have seen the safety precautions that Thompson will be using Sunday and feel they will be adequate."

Those precautions were not in use Saturday night when a top-fuel dragster, driven by George Scott of San Bernardino, crashed into a wall during a demonstration run after racing unexpectedly across the outfield grass at an estimated 35 m.p.h.

Erlewine said a police investigation of the accident concluded that no criminal activity had occurred and found that the driver of the dragster was not physically impaired.

"There was no alcohol or drugs found in the bloodstream," she said.

Additionally, police have released the dragster, which had been impounded, after finding no apparent mechanical problems. The investigation will be turned over to an insurance company to determine the cause of the accident.

Erlewine said police spoke with several witnesses and reviewed television footage of the incident in its investigation.

"It appears to be a purely freak accident. The city is confident that there was no negligence on the city's part," she added.

Under a contract with the city, which owns and operates the stadium, Thompson is required to maintain $1 million in liability insurance for each event at the stadium. Thompson also assumes all liability for any accidents that occur during events, although the city still might be the subject of lawsuits, city officials said.

"It was a freak thing, a one-in-a-million type of accident," Thompson said. "It was only a demonstration to show fans what to expect Sunday from the Thunder Drags. Our plan was for the car to go no more than 20 feet and then stop."

Thompson, who was granted exclusive rights last August to promote motor sports in Anaheim Stadium, also has an off-road Gran Prix scheduled Saturday night in the baseball-football facility.

The drag racing demonstration last Saturday was done during intermission of a Motor Sports Extravaganza, featuring mud-bog racing and truck and tractor pulls.

Sunday's program will feature side-by-side drag racing on six 200-foot lanes on the floor of the stadium. The plan is to stop the dragsters with a patented system designed by Thompson. He maintains that his system is capable of halting cars running at more than 100 m.p.h. in less than 100 feet.

Nylon straps, attached to the rear of each vehicle, are anchored at the start of the drag strip and are designed to stop the cars before they reach the end of the course. In case one breaks loose, large nets will be installed to catch the car. No spectators will be permitted in the grandstands at the end of the race course.

The protective measures were not considered necessary Saturday night, however, since Scott intended to make just a short run, comparable to a drag racer's burnout, in which a quick burst of acceleration from a standing start creates a lot of noise, flying dirt and smoke.

"What happened bears no relationship to what we are going to do Sunday," said Doug Stokes, general manager of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group. "I know that sounds strange, considering that it was a demonstration of what to expect, but it was not designed to demonstrate our stopping system. It was supposed to merely show the type of cars we would have and what they would be doing."

Several eyewitnesses among the 40,700 spectators said that the demonstration seemed to be going as planned at first, but shortly after the dragster began to slow, it began to bounce on its huge paddle tires, then accelerated again.

The car streaked 360 feet across the baseball outfield before hitting the wall. First, however, it veered off course and hit a pulling sled, tossing its operator into the air like a rag doll.

Casey Gill, 28, who was standing between the sled and the wall when hit by parts of the car, remained hospitalized Tuesday in satisfactory condition in the intensive care ward of the Western Medical Center in Santa Ana.

Seven people remained hospitalized, including Gill; Charles Banbridge, 13, of Chino; James Ross, 57, of Garden Grove; Marta Mowery, 29, of Costa Mesa; Christopher Potter, 17, of Norwalk; R.E Mitchell, 56, and Sharon Mitchell, 45, addresses unknown. All are listed in good condition.

When the dragster hit the sled, it lost its right front wheel. That pitched the car sideways, causing the right rear wheel to catch on the sled. The two rear wheels, still on the axle, catapulted into the grandstand where spectators were hit by flying debris. The first five rows of the stadium were empty, but the tires went six or seven rows deep.

Thompson said that Scott, who was bruised but not otherwise injured, told him that he had no idea what caused the sudden acceleration. Scott's brother, Billy, is a former Indianapolis 500 driver.

"This thing (dragster burnouts) happens every weekend, every place that dragsters run," Thompson said. "They even do it in parking lots. What happened just doesn't happen. I've promoted 5,000 events over 40 years and nothing like this has ever happened before."

During an off-road racing event promoted by Thompson just over a year ago at Anaheim Stadium, however, a truck driven by Al Unser Jr. rolled over during a race and knocked a water-filled barrier into the stands, knocking down a course construction worker, Rocky Tremelay. Tremelay was hospitalized with facial scrapes and body bruises.

Scott's accident also was similar to a fatal accident that occurred during a burnout exhibition in Emmett, Ida., in 1985. In that case, veteran driver Jim Dunn of Long Beach lost control of his funny car dragster, crashed through a fence and hit a concession stand, killing a woman and injuring 20 other people.

Thompson has also scheduled his Thunder Drags program into the Coliseum, San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Seattle's Kingdome and the Las Vegas Silver Bowl.

Times staff writer Carla Rivera contributed to this story.

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