Two of every three deaths in U.S. auto racing over the past three years occurred at short tracks, which have been slow to embrace changes that are saving lives in racing’s major leagues.
The most recent tragedy happened last weekend in New York when auto racing star Tony Stewart hit and killed 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was standing on the track and pointing toward Stewart’s car coming toward him while the race was under caution. The two had just tangled in a turn seconds earlier, sending Ward’s car into a wall.
Ward became one of more than 520 people across America who have died in auto racing in the past 25 years, an Observer study shows.
His death prompted NASCAR to adopt a new rule Friday prohibiting its drivers from leaving their cars and walking onto the track to confront other drivers after accidents. That’s the way most safety changes happen in auto racing, spurred by tragedy.
NASCAR has not had a death at any of its top levels since investing millions of dollars in safety after Dale Earnardt’s death on national television at the Daytona 500 in 2001. The effort produced mandatory head-and-neck restraints, crash-absorbing walls at NASCAR's top series tracks, and a new, safer car.
Most short track owners have not mandated head-and-neck restraints or other safety features to cars. Much like NASCAR’s reaction to Earnhardt’s death, the smaller venues have responded to individual tragedies. But unlike NASCAR, short tracks haven’t made sweeping safety changes.
“Short track racing is usually mayhem, hopefully controlled,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former longtime president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “That’s what people want. It’s like ice hockey with cars. ...”
Of at least 523 racing deaths since 1990, 53 percent have been at short tracks. That has climbed in the past three years to about 70 percent. Short tracks are also where most U.S. racing takes place.
Twenty-two percent of the deaths in the past 25 years were at drag strips.
The number of racing deaths annually appears to have dropped in recent years from an average of more than 20 to about 15 over the past five full years. There were at least 40 deaths in 2001 alone when the Observer began its study.
No one in racing keeps track of how many people die, so it’s possible that the Observer’s count doesn’t include all fatalities.
Saturday night short-track racing goes back more than 50 years to the sport’s roots in the South. Unlike the sprawling superspeedways where NASCAR’s top drivers now compete, short track races typically feature up to 24 drivers who jostle for position on oval tracks less than a half mile around. Cars can travel at treacherous speeds of up to 130 mph. Fans often stand just feet away.
Drivers at short tracks generally prefer to spend money on tires and parts to make their cars go faster, rather than safety equipment that could keep them alive.
Randy LaJoie, a former NASCAR driver whose company builds seats for drivers, runs a nonprofit called the Safer Racer Tour – a project that has sent him to more than 100 tracks, offering safety tips. It’s a message, he says, that some drivers don’t want to hear.
“I’ve almost gotten into fights telling people they’re not safe,” LaJoie said.
For years, when someone died in racing it was often called a freak accident – an unusual set of circumstances that no one could have foreseen. But a 2001 Observer investigation, “Death at the Track,” revealed dangerous patterns from the top levels of racing on down. Detecting those patterns, the report concluded, could save lives.
One of the major breakthroughs since Earnhardt’s death, caused by injuries to his head after his car slammed into a wall, has been the increased use of the head and neck restraints by drivers. They’re designed to stop the racer’s head from whipping forward in a crash. That reduces the likelihood of head and neck injuries that can kill drivers.
Since Earnhardt’s death, many top divisions including NASCAR have mandated the restraints. But at most short tracks, restraints are still only a recommendation.
Dr. Steve Olvey, a leading motorsports safety expert and an associate professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami, said that he had expected smaller tracks to learn from safety advances.
“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, these lower series have not adopted these things that have been shown to be beneficial in the major series,” Olvey said.
Chuck Davies, CEO of Simpson Performance Products, the Mooresville company that manufactures the HANS device, estimates that only a third of race car drivers use such head and neck restraints.
“A lot of people rationalize, ‘I don’t go that fast.’ You don’t have to go that fast,” he said. “If you hit something at 40 miles per hour and you have an average neck, it can break your neck.”
Davies said the cost of the HANS device has dropped from $1,500 to as low as $600.
“Most racers don’t use a safety product unless it’s required,” Davies said. “People had to be required to wear seat belts before they started wearing seat belts.”
Dead on the track
Sixty-three-year-old race car driver David Richardson bought a head and neck restraint. But when he tried it on, he quickly decided it wasn’t for him.
“He said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s too restrictive. I can’t move,’ ” said Steve Rose, a longtime friend and business partner.
About six years ago, Richardson tried his hand racing dwarf cars, replicas of vintage race cars from the 1920s, 30s and 40s -- and was instantly hooked.
He had a love affair with “anything fast and scary,” says Rose, who helped Richardson run a truck and trailer repair company in Truckee, Calif. Richardson didn’t win many races, but he liked to push himself, and he held his own against much younger drivers.
The head-and-neck restraint was sitting in the back of Richardson’s truck on May 25, 2013, as he headed into the last lap of a race at Reno Fernley Raceway in western Nevada. That’s when another car plowed into Richardson’s at about 90 miles per hour at the end of a multi-car crash, fracturing his neck in two places. Richardson and the driver who had hit him, Leroy Kay, were pronounced dead on the track.
Whether the HANS device would have saved Richardson is unclear. But his widow, Kari, reportedly thinks it might have.
“I can’t help but think that the HANS could have saved his life,” she told Sports Illustrated.
A costly expense
The Observer’s 2001 investigation showed that track fences and barriers regularly fail to protect fans. But at many short tracks, the lessons of previous tragedies don’t sink in until one of their own spectators dies.
Since 1990, at least 47 spectators have died, including 28 at short tracks.
Many NASCAR tracks raised and fortified their fences. But many short track owners stayed with fences that have little chance against an out-of-control car.
Wheeler, now chairman of Speedway Benefits, an alliance of short tracks, says he pushes owners to make sure they have adequate fences on top of the concrete walls that separate the cars on the track from the fans. It’s a costly expense.
On Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 21-year-old Ryan Peters was standing just behind the Turn 1 wall at Windy Hollow Speedway in Owensboro, Ky. – a place where spectators had watched the weekend races for years. Suddenly, a race car hurtled over that wall and through a reinforced chain link fence. Peters, who was in the car's path, was declared dead at a nearby hospital.
Track officials learned from the tragedy, prohibiting fans from standing behind the wall on Turn 1. It was the only fatality in the dirt track’s 44-year history, they say.
Track owner Evelyn Miller said she has tried hard to keep drivers and spectators safe.
But some track managers worry that imposing strict rules will place them at a competitive disadvantage, she says. Drivers who balk at such rules may take their cars to neighboring tracks instead.
“If every small track had the exact same rules, it would be better for everybody,” Miller said.
Safer racing would be better racing, she says.
“More people might get involved and insurance rates might drop,” she said. “It would make the sport stronger in the end.”
Despite all its safety improvements, even NASCAR doesn’t always spell out rules that seem to be common sense.
Friday, six days after Ward died at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, NASCAR adopted a rule banning drivers involved in wrecks from climbing out of their cars and walking onto the track.
Previously, NASCAR had not consistently penalized drivers who stormed onto tracks during races. Stewart was fined for throwing his gloves at Kenny Irwin in 1999 at Martinsville, but wasn't penalized for throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car at Bristol in 2012. NASCAR officials say they had discouraged drivers from the practice, and included it in a video that is shown during the pre-race drivers meeting.
Police continue to investigate Ward’s death to determine whether any charges will be filed against Stewart, who has decided to skip his second consecutive NASCAR race Sunday.
Racing toward a turn on the half-mile dirt track last Saturday, Stewart’s car slid into Ward’s, whose car spun and hit the wall. The race was placed under caution.
Ward left his car, stepped quickly toward the infield and stood in the middle of the track as cars passed and dodged him. Ward pointed in what appeared to be an accusatory way toward Stewart’s car coming toward him.
As Stewart approached Ward, his car appeared to speed up. Then, 25 seconds after the crash, the right side of Stewart’s car hit Ward, knocking him several yards down the track. Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital.
Edge of disaster
Now, short tracks across the country are considering similar rules banning drivers from walking onto the track after wrecks. Few have made immediate changes. Chuck Miller, race director for Empire Super Sprints, the series Ward raced in, said his members – mostly drivers – will take up the incident at the group's yearly membership meeting.
He says he can't recall a driver ever walking onto the track like Ward did shortly before he was killed. “We've had drivers who get so disgusted they leave their cars and walk to the pits, but never anything like what happened last weekend.”
Earlier this week however, the Observer reported that other short track owners often had seen drivers leave their cars and charge onto the track.
Ward was buried Thursday. He was remembered as a fearless driver who loved racing. More than 700 people attended the service, many wearing the orange, black and white that were Ward’s colors on the track.
Evelyn Miller, the owner of the Kentucky track where a spectator died behind Turn 1 last year, says that in the wake of Ward’s death, it’s important that racing’s leaders make safety a priority.
"(Drivers) love danger. And they always will,” Miller said. “But as promoters, we have to make sure they can ride that edge and not go over it."
Database editor Gavin Off, reporter David Perlmutt and researcher Maria David contributed to this story.