Originally created 05/30/99

Racing deaths don't deter fans



INDIANAPOLIS -- A streak of red shoots through the speedway's first turn, lightning-quick metal and rubber chased by noise and exhaust fumes.

Judy Riley and Mike Pierson watch from metal bench seats in the grandstand, feeling an excitement they've known each year since the 1950s.

"There's nothing like the smell, the sound and the feel of a race car going by," Pierson says.

And there's nothing that would make him or Riley miss the Indianapolis 500. Not weather, not crowds and certainly not concerns about cars wrecking at close to 240 mph, sending deadly debris flying into the stands.

At the last Indy Racing League event, three fans were killed and eight injured when a wheel and suspension parts shot into the grandstand after a wreck at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., on May 1.

Last July, three people were killed and six hurt in a similar accident during the Championship Auto Racing Teams' U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway.

In the 1987 Indianapolis 500, a fan sitting 80 feet above the track in the last row of the grandstand was killed by a tire that came off Tony Bettenhausen's car and was struck by Roberto Guerrero's car.

"It's a shame that it happens," Pierson says, his eyes intense behind gold-rimmed glasses. "But it's nothing that people shouldn't know they're susceptible to when they come in. You come in at your own risk."

Many fans equate these accidents to getting struck by lightning or being in a plane crash. The odds are it's not going to happen, but if it does there's not much you can do about it. Might as well just enjoy the sport.

For race organizers, the concern is higher.

"I think there certainly is much more awareness of the risk that's involved," says Jerry Gappens, spokesman for Lowe's Motor Speedway. "That side of the fence is sacred territory and we want to do everything we can to make it a safe environment for fans."

In response to the tragedy in Concord, the fence at the track was raised from 15 to 21 feet, and the fence's overhang was increased from 3 to 6 feet.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway fence is 19 feet, 8 inches, but the track is flatter than the high-banked Lowe's oval. So, there is less of a chance that car parts could reach the speedway stands during a wreck.

Meanwhile, IRL executive director Leo Mehl announced that a new safety system will debut at the Indy 500. It uses cables in cars to try to prevent wheels and suspension parts from flying into the stands during wrecks.

A separate wheel lock, added to the cars after the 1987 death at the speedway, prevents the tire from detaching from the wheel.

"I think we're doing everything possible to make it as safe for the fans as it can be," Mehl says.

CART cars will use a similar tethering system for the first time Saturday at the Motorola 300 in Madison, Ill., but only on the front wheels.

In the stands just across from pit row, Russel Nelson trudges the lines of spectators, sloshing a tray of ice, water and cool cans. He's been a beer man at the Indy 500 for five years, and figures if anything on the track blows up, at least he's a moving target.

"I don't worry about it too much," Nelson says, raising his voice as a racer roars past.

"My biggest problem is gettin' hit by fly balls in ballparks. Now that's dangerous."