They Forgot That a Life Is More Important Than Opening Night

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Once again, the sport of auto racing has treated death like a fly speck on its windshield.

A 23-year-old sprint car driver from Roseburg, Ore., rolled his car and died of massive head injuries Saturday afternoon at Irwindale. His name was Casey Diemert.

But if you were one of the 6,500 in the sold-out house at the grand opening of the Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night, as I was, Diemert didn't have a name, didn't exist.

We never had a chance to know ye, Casey, and now we never will. Never had a chance to say hello, and certainly not goodbye. You were an intrusion, a show-stopper. They lifted off your crumpled body in one of those Life Flight helicopters kind of like you pick up pieces of paper off the lawn to make sure the grass looks nice. They put some chemicals on the track and hoped that nobody noticed the long black mark that wrecked the white paint job on the wall in turns 3 and 4.

There was a ceremony to have, firecrackers to set off and racing celebrities to parade out. There were politicians to thank, ribbons to cut, the USC Marching Band to march and the Trojan cheerleaders to cheer.

This pomp had no room for your circumstance, Casey Diemert.

Diemert crashed his car minutes after the track had opened for practice at 2 p.m. This is a $10-million project at least five years in the making and one full year in the construction. It is just south of the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways, and it has scheduled close to 70 days and nights of racing this year.

Saturday was truly show time, and understandably so. Southern California clearly has an appetite for short-track racing, and this paved beauty, with its high-rise bleachers, luxury suites and long row of concession stands, is state of the art. If you loved Ascot, you'll really love Irwindale.

Saturday was to be a day of smiles all around and lots of handshakes and pats on the back. The concept and execution, especially by investor Jim Williams and Chief Operating Officer Ray Wilkings, was masterful. They put tickets on sale at 9 a.m. Feb. 17 for opening night and were sold out before noon.

So when Diemert went into the wall, and word was quickly received that his accident had been fatal, there were still three hours or so before the bulk of the crowd would arrive. And there was a decision to make. When to announce this? How to announce it? Or, to announce it at all.

When the latter course was taken, Irwindale Speedway officials had erred. Blown it big time. Made a mistake for the ages.

Most of the people who attended the opening night, and enjoyed the ceremonies right down to the last firecracker, learned of Diemert's death in the paper the next morning.

Was there no way to squeeze in a moment of silence between the ribbon cutting and the interview with the mayor of Irwindale? Was there no way, in those three hours, to find out more about Diemert and to start the ceremony, or end it, with some words of condolences? How about asking Roger Penske, who represents all that is good about racing and who was there, to do it? Or Danny Sullivan, who has faced death on the track many times, including racing's most-famous 200 mph spin, to step to the microphone and try? He owns part of this track and was there too. One wonders if Penske or Sullivan even knew.

The message would not have been as important as the attempt to convey it. But, sadly, this sport of greasy hands and testosterone-induced speeds continues to have the sensitivity of a power wrench.

Would the truth have ruined the night? If so, it was still the truth. Plus, there will be many more nights at the Irwindale Speedway.

Would the show have been upstaged? If so, it is still only a show, not a life.

I don't really fault the Irwindale officials as much as the sport itself, which all too frequently has treated its racing accidents as nuisances and distractions from the important stuff, like overhead cams and turbochargers. The Times' Shav Glick, longtime auto race writer, calls this "racing's traditionalism."

Last year, when three people died at the Michigan Speedway during a CART race when a tire came off one of the cars and bounced into the stands, the information flowed like it was coming from the Kremlin. That is the norm in auto racing, not the exception.

Doug Stokes, communication director at Irwindale, said that how to handle the announcement of Diemert's death was "a terribly difficult decision." But he said he had agreed with Wilkings' assessment that the accident had happened before most people got there and so there was no need to say anything that night.

"It was a roll of the dice," Stokes said.

Nope. It was a slam dunk. But, once again, racing dribbled the ball off its foot.

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