For the second time in nine months a crash at a major open-wheel auto race in the United States has killed three spectators, raising questions about safety at the events.
"Every once in a while, unfortunately, auto racing raises the black side of itself," Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said Sunday as authorities tried to piece together evidence from a fatal accident at the track Saturday night. Debris from a three-car wreck flew into the stands during the VisionAire 500 Pep Boys Indy Racing League event.
Killed were Randy D. Pyatte, 21, and Jeff Patton, no age available, both of Connelly Springs, and Dexter B. Mobley, 41, of Statesville. Eight were hurt, including Hailey McGee, 9, of Conover, who was critically injured with bruises to her brain and lungs.
Witnesses said the force of the crash at speeds near 215 mph rocketed a wheel and suspension parts over a 15-foot-high catch fence at the exit of the fourth turn. The debris flew into the grandstands and slammed into spectators, some of them seated several dozen rows above the 1.5-mile, high-banked superspeedway.
As shrieking spectators sought help, rescue workers converged on the bloody area in a scenario eerily similar to that at Michigan Speedway on July 26, when three spectators were killed in a Champ Car race. The cause in that event also was a broken wheel and suspension parts that hurdled a catch fence.
In an effort to keep wheels from flying off at impact, the Formula One circuit this year began requiring its teams to use tethers designed to keep the wheels and suspension connected to the main body of the machine.
Such tethers are not required on either Champ Cars or IRL machines, in part because some racing authorities think the devices may solve one problem while creating another.
Leo Mehl, executive director of the IRL, said there is concern that while tethers may prevent parts from flying off cars and hitting fans, they also may put drivers in greater danger because the parts could snap back and hit them instead. A tethered wheel also could be especially dangerous if it is launched into the stands in a slingshot fashion, Mehl said.
The speedway canceled the race shortly after the accident and said it would refund the ticket prices for the approximately 50,000 spectators. Shortly after the announcement, some people began calling the speedway to say the track could earmark their refunds for a victims' trust fund. Speedway officials said they planned to have a trust account opened Monday.
The accident occurred in the last race of a three-year sanctioning agreement between the IRL and the speedway, prompting questions about whether the track might not seek to renew its agreement with the circuit.