HAMPTON, Ga. - Note to NASCAR: When it comes to construction of a race car, the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series seems to have a better idea.
A vicious 11-car crash on the 53rd lap sent Dr. Jack Miller to a local hospital with a concussion, but the other drivers walked away with nothing more than bumps and bruises.
The accident started when Cory Witherill dramatically slowed in the fourth turn, and that started a chain reaction that sent cars flying over each other, sent debris into the grandstands and started a 200-yard-long fireball.
The crash destroyed cars driven by Witherill, Miller, Al Unser Jr., Jaret Schroeder, Robbie Buhl, Robby McGehee, Casey Mears and Billy Boat, and it crippled cars driven by Jon Herb and Sarah Fisher.
When Witherill slowed, Felipe Giaffone veered to the right to miss Witherill and he wound up hitting Witherill to start one the crash at 215 mph. Buhl literally drove over the top of Miller's car as it erupted into flames. Mears ended up on top of Unser as Buhl's car caught fire and Miller's flipped upside-down.
"That's one of the nastiest crashes I've ever seen," said driver Eddie Cheever after witnessing the crash from pit road after his car broke an engine 19 laps earlier. "You cannot miscue when you're going 215 mph."
Unser's helmet was destroyed in the crash. It had scrapes and tire marks on the top, but he walked away without injury.
"I was behind Giaffone and somebody in front of him (Witherill) slowed down," Unser said. "Then somebody hit me and put me in the wall. After that, somebody else hit me and I hit the wall. Then somebody else hit me and I hit the wall again.
"I haven't had guys flying over me, and cars on fire on top of me before. That was the wildest thing I've ever seen."
Unlike the stock cars from the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, the open-wheeled IndyCars are designed to break into pieces during a crash. The purpose of that is to expend energy and lessen the impact to the driver.
There was so much debris created during the crash, it took rescue workers more than 45 minutes to clean up the mess.
The rigidity of stock cars has come under review in the last year following four racing fatalities in the last 11 months. All four drivers died of broken necks following a hard impact with the wall.
COME ONE, COME ALL:
The Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series worked hard to win over fans during the zMAX 500 Saturday night.
The speedway offered a deal called the Family Pack for $99 that included four tickets in the main grandstands, four hats, four programs, four hot dogs and four soft drinks.
Thousands of fans utilized the promotion and the greatest benefactors were children.
Saturday's IndyCar race was a rare opportunity for families to attend a major league race at minor league prices. The same tickets for a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race would have cost more than $100 each, and they wouldn't have come with any of the trimmings.
At least one-third of the estimated crowd of 40,000 were children. Another promotion was an offer to military personnel half-price tickets.
During the week leading up to the race, drivers made several appearances around town to generate interest in the race. The Indy Racing League decided at its inception in 1996 it would pattern its marketing plan to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. The popular stock car circuit built its fan base one fan at a time with many of the same promotions and personal appearances.
There are a few tickets remaining for the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation Benefit at the Morton's Steakhouse in Indianapolis on May 6. The dinner will help find a cure for paralysis and it will feature autographed items from basketball's Shaquille O'Neal and Kobie Bryant as well as an autographed harmonica from Billy Joel. Tickets are $99 ... Vineland, N.J., threw a going away party for driver Jaret Schroeder on April 21 to wish him luck during Saturday's zMAX 500 and next month's Indianapolis 500.
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