Originally created 07/11/00

Track investigating second death



CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire International Speedway is investigating its second death in as many months, and one critic said Monday that NASCAR should consider suspending races there.

Driver Kenny Irwin died Friday on Turn 3 while practicing for Sunday's New England 300. Driver Adam Petty died in a similar accident at almost the same spot while practicing on the 1.058-mile track May 12.

"There's obviously something wrong with that corner," Lauren Fix, a racing driver and director of a performance driving school at the Watkins Glen track in Watkins Glen, N.Y., said in a telephone interview Monday.

The track's owner, some drivers and a top NASCAR official disagree, noting the deaths were the first in NASCAR-sanctioned events at the speedway since it opened in 1990.

Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations, called the deaths a "tragic coincidence."

"When you look at the number of years we've run there, and you look at the number of laps and miles we've put on that race track ... it's not really fair to look at the track as an issue," Triplett said, also by telephone.

But Fix said she was surprised racing wasn't suspended after Petty's death.

"I'm hoping now that NASCAR will send some people up there and determine whether it should be sanctioned until something is done," she said.

"Do you still want people racing there until we know what's going on?"

Irwin's crash has prompted a NASCAR investigation, but Triplett said what caused the crash may not be known for months -- if ever.

Some in the racing community want NASCAR to look at the track's design and at its lack of foam safety barriers.

Irwin, 30, crashed into a concrete wall and was pronounced dead at the scene. He died of a crushed skull, the medical examiner said Monday. He had hit his brakes, suggesting to other drivers that his throttle was stuck open.

Critics say the track's tight corners and low banking make it tough for drivers to handle such situations. Owner Bob Bahre told The Boston Globe there is nothing wrong with the speedway, however.

"The track is fine," he said. "It was good for 10 years, and you have trouble one year. I think that should be the answer."

Not true, Fix said. She can't understand why, especially after Petty's death, the track didn't install foam barriers over its concrete walls. The foam absorbs some of the impact of crashes.

"Racing is dangerous, we all know that," she said. "But you can take precautions as the owner of a track to stop situations like this from happening."

NASCAR does not require tracks to use the barriers, though some tracks have had them for more than five years. Triplett said foam barriers break apart on impact, which can send debris flying into the paths of other cars.

"If someone hits a barrier and kicks the barrier out in front of everyone else who's not involved in the accident, what does that create? Who knows?"

A.K. Thurston, race operations manager at Watkins Glen, said his track has used the barriers for about six years and they have reduced injuries. He said the $50,000 to $100,000 annual cost is worth it.

"Any time there is a life involved, you can't put a cost on that," he said.

That's a sentiment shared by Winston Cup driver Rusty Wallace, who told the New Hampshire Sunday News that drivers are concerned about the lack of barriers at the New Hampshire track.

"I'd be lying to you if I told you there's not some concern there," he said. "I would hope after these two tragic deaths we've had that we can take a hard look at how to make the tracks safer."

Wallace speaks from experience. He smashed into a foam barrier at the Pocono 500 in Pennsylvania at about 200 mph this season and walked away. "I'm a real fan of these barriers," he said.

But Bahre said he isn't inclined to use them.

"Barricades would just blow all to pieces," he said. "All they do is just fly everywhere."

But if NASCAR recommends changes, Bahre will make them.

"If NASCAR says to me we want this done or that done, it will be done," he said.

Triplett said two safety changes NASCAR will consider as part of the investigation are engine kill switches and toe clips on accelerator pedals.

When a gas pedal sticks to the floor, a clip on the pedal could help the driver pull it up. Some drivers use clips, but NASCAR doesn't require them.

Engine kill switches are another way of dealing with stuck throttles. Most NASCAR cars have two of them, but drivers say they aren't convenient enough to use during the split-second available to get a racecar under control.

Irwin will be buried Wednesday in Indianapolis. The viewing will be tonight at Abundant Life Church.