Three spectators were killed and six others injured by a wheel and other crash debris that flew into the stands in the U.S. 500, a CART championship at Michigan Speedway in which most of the drivers did not know of the tragedy until after the race.
The accident, the worst involving spectators in a major modern U.S. race, occurred on lap 175 of the 250-lap race when pole-sitter Adrian Fernandez lost control of his Reynard-Ford and it slid into the wall at better than 200 mph. The impact sheared off the right front wheel and it catapulted over a four-foot wall and an 11-foot fence into the grandstands.
An on-board impact sensor measured Fernandez’s impact at 92 Gs. His only injuries were bruises to the inside of both knees.
“Paul Tracy was coming up to the inside behind me and he took the air off me,” said Fernandez, who had led nine laps before the crash. “He didn’t hit me, but he went into the inside of me and instead of keeping his line, he went straight up and I got up high and there was nothing I could do.”
Two spectators were killed immediately and another died at a track care center after resuscitation efforts, said Dr. Greg Baumann, speedway medical director.
Officials identified the spectators who died as Michael Terry Tautkus, 49, and Sheryl Ann Laster, 40, of Milan, Mich., and Kenneth Dale Fox, 38, of Lansing, Mich.
The other six were transported to W.A. Foote Memorial Hospital in nearby Jackson. Four treated and released were: David Silva, 25, of Dearborn, Mich.; Gerald Bramer, 31, of Livonia, Mich.; Richard Bramer, 20, also of Livonia; and Joyce Thompson, 48, of Spring Arbor, Mich. Two remaining in the hospital for further treatment were Doris Shuman, 70, of West Bloomfield, Mich., and Steve Dawson, 31, of Lansing, Mich.
“Just for a split second, out of the corner of my eye, I caught what looked like something flying,” said Mark Kuyers of Holland, Mich., who has been coming to races here for eight years. “I think the people that got hit didn’t even see it coming.
“It was completely a freak thing,” he said. “The tire bounced a couple of times and landed in the walkway.”
Tim VanderMel, of Waynesville, N.C., sitting close to Kuyers amid the crowd of 60,000, said he saw the tire headed toward the stands.
“As people saw it coming down, they just started scrambling. It was almost like it was in slow motion,” VanderMel said.
The area where the fans were hit included a block of seats for which the Foote hospital had complimentary tickets, and one of the injured worked at the hospital, hospital spokeswoman Robin Kirkpatrick said.
Spectator Gerald Bramer said he threw up his arm to block the tire from Fernandez’s car as it brushed by him. It hit Bramer’s brother, Rich, in the back, but neither was injured seriously.
Becky Lutgen, a Lansing, Mich., TV news director, said she didn’t see the tire from Fernandez’s car until it hit the stands and landed about four or five rows away. “It ricocheted in the stands and came to rest between some rows. It went by so fast,” Lutgen said.
Witnesses said track security and medical personnel were on the scene almost immediately. They quickly cleared the grandstand.
With 75 laps to go, track officials decided to keep the race running. Racing is rarely halted unless there is a dangerous situation on the track itself.
“I can only express the deep sorrow felt by everyone within the CART community,” CART chairman Andrew Craig said in a statement. “There is, of course, nothing that we can say or do that in any way will reduce the deep sadness felt by the families and friends of the victims, but, on behalf of all of us at CART, I extend our heartfelt sympathies.”
Gene Haskett, the Michigan speedway president, said there is no way to say how tall a fence should be to prevent this kind of an accident.
“It’s impossible to say how high something would bounce or fly over,” he said. “Thirty-one years of racing here on the oval and this being our first incident of this nature is just something that’s very, very unfortunate.”
It was the first spectator fatality at Michigan Speedway since May 11, 1969, when a car driven by Horst Kwech hit an onlooker on a since-closed road course during the Wolverine Trans Am.
Sunday’s accident was similar to a fatality at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987 when a loose tire off Tony Bettenhausen’s car was flipped by Roberto Guerrero’s car into the stands where it killed a fan standing on the top row during the Indianapolis 500.
Racing’s worst moment came on June 11, 1955, when a race car careened into the spectator area at Le Mans, France, and killed 83 people on that day. By the end of the year, it was estimated that nearly 100 had died from the tragedy.
At the Michigan Speedway, the spectators’ deaths turned the race, which was one of the most competitive in CART history, into a footnote in the record books.
“People came here to watch us race and put on a good show, which we did today,” said race winner Greg Moore of Canada. “But that tragedy definitely puts a damper on it.”
Added runner-up Jimmy Vasser: “It’s terrible, a tragedy.”
The race included an almost unbelievable 62 lead changes among nine drivers before Moore passed Vasser on the final lap after three hours of racing to take the checkered flag for the U.S. 500. The official lead changes did not reflect the many passes and repasses during individual laps.
The CART record for most lead changes had been 27.
Moore’s winning margin was 0.259 seconds, with CART champion Alex Zanardi another .008 seconds behind his teammate, Vasser.
When CART installed an aerodynamic instrument called the Handford Device on the rear wings of its cars to reduce speeds and increase safety, it apparently did not anticipate what effect it would have on the racing.
What it inadvertently did was create an atmosphere similar to NASCAR’s Winston Cup racing of a decade or more ago when it never paid to lead going into the final lap because trailing cars were almost certain to pass the leader.
The last five laps--after a restart following a yellow flag--were an intense seesaw among Moore, Vasser and Zanardi, who swapped the lead five times, and Scott Pruett, who got as far up as second before finishing fourth. Vasser was leading, with Zanardi right behind when racing resumed on lap 245.
“Jimmy and Alex had both been having great restarts, and I thought to catch them I’d have to have a good draft off Pruett,” Moore said. “Once we got the white flag, I got a good run on Jimmy into Turn 1. He took the outside and I took the inside, and I got a good run down the backstraight and was able to hold on.”
Moore, who drove a Reynard powered by Mercedes-Benz, collected $100,000 for winning the fourth race of his career and his second this season. He also won the Rio 400 in Brazil. He averaged 165.913 mph, a speed slowed by eight caution flags for 55 laps.
The new regulations did not please Zanardi, who had his winning streak end at four races.
“It was just drafting, not racing,” said Zanardi, who led for 63 laps, more than any other driver.
Michael Andretti, who led 62 laps before losing a lap when he was penalized for hitting one of Richie Hearn’s tires during a pit stop, said he felt the Hanford Device needed some refinements before being used again at California Speedway in the Nov. 1 Marlboro 500.
“It was scary out there,” Andretti said. “When you are running at 220 mph wheel-to-wheel for 400-plus miles [when not yellow], all it takes is one guy to make a little mistake and he could have taken a bunch of people out. It wasn’t fun that way. We don’t have fenders like NASCAR. The racing got a little tight at the end, but that’s what racing is about.
“When we go to California though, they may need to do a little more adjusting on the [Handford] wings to put a little more driveability in the car.”
The Handford Device was designed only for use on the two-mile superspeedways at Michigan and Fontana.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.