The severe thunderstorm that hit the Pocono Raceway Sunday during the Pennsylvania 400 was no surprise. The National Weather Service suggested hours in advance that storms were likely for the Pocono Mountains. Track officials, NASCAR, race teams and fans saw it coming on their satellite television screens and mobile devices.
So why did lightning strikes around the track kill one man and injure nine others?
NASCAR and all of its tracks now are reviewing their severe weather and emergency management policies after Brian Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, Pa., was killed in the parking lot just as the Pennsylvania 400 was called for bad weather.
Track officials closely reviewed the timeline a day after the incident. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 4:12 p.m. The track issued a warning to fans on its Twitter and Facebook pages, stating, “Severe thunderstorms are in the area which will produce high winds and lightning. Should arrive in 10-15 minutes.” The race, however, officially continued for another 42 minutes before NASCAR declared Jeff Gordon the winner 62 laps short of the scheduled finish. About 30 minutes of that time, however, were under the yellow and red flags.
Zimmerman was killed at 5:01 p.m.
Unlike other professional sports, NASCAR and its tracks don’t work hand-in-hand with each other. NASCAR makes its own decisions on when to stop races; speedways have the responsibility to decide what’s best for the fans.
“Ultimately the decision for the race is NASCAR, but the decision to the facility is up to the track,” NASCAR managing director of corporate communications David Higdon said. “Right now we’re very actively reviewing what was done. Hopefully we’ll improve like we’ve done in the past, but I’m not sure something like this could have been avoided.”
Ed Clark, the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, said unlike football and baseball stadiums, there are bigger challenges to get fans to safety at racetracks. The first telephone call he made when he got to work on Monday was to the Henry County Emergency Management Agency to make sure they will be proactive during the Advocare 500 later this month.
“We have an emergency plan that gets updated every year,” he said. “Common sense is you know it’s coming. You throw your gates open and you let people get to their cars. If you can hear thunder, you can be hit by lightning.”
The National Weather Service asks major sporting venues to be equipped with lightning detection systems. But when in doubt, it hopes everyone uses the “30-30 rule.” When you see lightning, if you hear thunder before you can count to 30, you need to find shelter for at least 30 minutes.
Daytona International Speedway spokesman Lenny Santiago said the best way to stay safe is to use common sense. If you see bad weather coming, get to a safe location.
Even if the racing doesn’t stop.