Weaver struck by car during caution period

Updated: February 10, 2004, 7:56 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A paraplegic who wanted to pursue his love of racing. A worker trying to do his job in the middle of the track. A tragic Daytona accident that's sure to spur debate about yellow flags and disabled drivers.

A 44-year-old worker was killed Sunday by a car going more than 100 mph, struck down while picking up debris during a preliminary race for next weekend's Daytona 500.

The driver, Ray Paprota, is the first known paraplegic to race in a national stock car series. He controlled his car with levers, buttons and knobs located on or around the steering wheel.

"I'm sure they're going to point the finger at him," said Wally Leatherwood, a fellow driver in the IPOWER Dash 150.

Roy H. Weaver III, who worked at Daytona International Speedway for seven years, was in the middle of turn two picking up debris during a caution period when he was killed, track spokesman David Talley said.

Paprota, who hasn't had use of his legs since a 1984 auto accident, was trying to catch the main pack of cars after a two-car crash at the opposite end of the track brought out a yellow flag.

Most of Paprota's colleagues rallied around him, saying the mishap could have happened to any of them.

"A procedure needs to be developed that would slow the cars down when track workers are physically on the track," Leatherwood said. "It's sad that it takes something like this to get their attention."

He questioned whether workers should be allowed on to the track while cars are running - even at slower speeds under yellow. And, as apparently happened in this case, drivers are allowed to speed up to get back in line behind the safety car after coming out of the pits.

"The guy went on the racetrack to do his job and he was killed," Leatherwood said. "They shouldn't be on the track unless they're 100 percent sure there's no danger."

Jeff Tillman, who was running behind Paprota, said the accident occurred at the most vulnerable spot on the track. Weaver was standing in the middle of the track and flipped over Paprota's car after being struck.

"It's blind in there," Tillman said. "You have maybe 200 yards of visibility at 120 mph."

The race was red-flagged for about 1 hours, finally running to the finish under the lights after police investigated the scene and took pictures of Paprota's car in the garage.

Paprota was loaded into a wheelchair-accessible van and left the track without discussing the accident with reporters. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't say anything."

In the past, the 41-year-old New Jersey native spoke of the satisfaction he got from racing.

"Just being able to hop into a race car and leave my wheelchair behind is the greatest achievement," said Paprota, who founded a team known as Pioneer Racing. "To know that I'm going toe-to-toe with my able-bodied peers -- and that I'm respected for my ability on the track and behind the wheel - is the greatest rush going."

Weaver, supervisor of the track crew, was the 36th person to die during an event at Daytona, the second in less than four months. Bryan Cassell was killed while practicing for a motorcycle race on Oct. 18.

Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died at the track on Feb. 18, 2001, when his car hit the wall on the final turn at the Daytona 500.

Danny Bagwell, who won the Dash race, defended Paprota's racing skills.

"I think he's a capable race driver and I think everybody deserves an opportunity," Bagwell said. "We've tried to help him as much as we could."

After his paralyzing wreck, Paprota rehabilitated at the same Birmingham, Ala., hospital where former NASCAR star Bobby Allison recovered from a serious racing crash.

Paprota has since moved into the Hueytown, Ala., racing shop once used by Allison and his late son, Davey.

"We learned about him through Bobby Allison," Bagwell said. "That's a pretty good reference."

Raymond Claypool, an executive with the Dash series, said Paprota had raced in three previous series events and tried to qualify for a fourth.

Already cleared to run on five-eighth-mile tracks, he requested to compete this year at Daytona.

"He attended a rookie meeting and went through extensive testing both on and off the track," Claypool said. "We also asked other drivers ... and we felt very confident he was qualified to compete here."

Paprota couldn't get going at the start of Sunday's race because of a faulty battery. He finally joined the other cars after Bill Clevenger and Tony Billings were involved in a serious crash in turn three.

Billings had to be cut out of his car and taken to a hospital, where he was listed in satisfactory condition Sunday night. Fortunately, he was awake and moving when removed from his battered machine.

Meanwhile, Paprota was speeding around the track, trying to catch up to the main group of cars. Weaver had apparently spotted some debris in turn two and went on the track to remove it. That's when he was hit by Paprota's car.

"I don't know how fast he was going, but it had to be over 100 mph," Leatherwood said. "It's sad for the series. Unfortunately, we're now the series that killed a corner worker at Daytona."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press