Commentary

NHRA will learn from fatal accident

Updated: February 23, 2010, 6:48 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Was it just a tragic improbability, a one-in-a-trillion occurrence that cost a woman her life?

Or was it a surprisingly horrible situation that could have been avoided?

Those questions always are asked whenever a spectator is killed at a sports event. NHRA officials are looking for answers after a flying wheel with tire still attached from a Top Fuel dragster accident killed a woman attending the NHRA Arizona Nationals on Sunday.

• Should the tire have been tethered to the car, as is done in other racing series?

• Should the NHRA have catch fencing above the retaining walls on the racetrack?

• Was the track safe for competition after the Pro Stock drivers moved the final three rounds of their eliminations to the next race because of concerns about the racing surface?

All are legitimate questions, but the answers don't necessarily change the outcome.

"We are going to look at everything," said NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault. "We won't walk away from this and do nothing. We will react and make changes, as we have proven many times in the past."

Sunday was the first time in NHRA history that a spectator was killed by a runaway tire, and the first time in more than 30 years any fan has been killed at an NHRA event.

Top Fuel driver Antron Brown had just started his run when the left-rear wheel spun off the dragster. The car took a sharp turn to the left and slammed into the retaining wall, coming dangerously close to going over the wall.

The tire bounced high in the air and kept bouncing past the end of the grandstands and into the pit area, where it struck the woman.

"There are simply no words to adequately express our feelings," said Don Schumacher, owner of Brown's dragster. "We extend our sympathies and ask everyone to keep the victim and her family in your thoughts and prayers.

"We can assure you that we are conducting a thorough investigation to determine how this happened. Don Schumacher Racing is one of the leading advocates for safety in the NHRA. We intend to do everything in our power to carefully investigate this matter as efficiently and thoroughly as possible."

The event was completed Monday after rain postponed Sunday's eliminations, but it probably was the right thing to do under any circumstance.

Cory McClenathan, Brown's teammate at DSR, won in Top Fuel. Jack Beckman, who defeated John Force in the Funny Car final, expressed how everyone was feeling.

"It was a very tragic weekend, and our hearts go out to the family who lost their loved one," Beckman said. "It's very difficult for all the racers when something like that happens."

The Pro Stock drivers didn't complete the final three rounds of the event, feeling the track was too dangerous for their cars. The eliminations will be completed in the Gainesville, Fla., event scheduled for March 11-14.

Two Pro Stock drivers had violent crashes this past weekend that led to traction concerns in the left lane of the track.

"I applaud the NHRA for moving the remainder of eliminations to Gainesville," said Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson. "It was the right thing to do. For some reason, these Pro Stock cars were an absolute handful on this racetrack. I came as close to crashing on that first round run as I ever have, and was pretty apprehensive about the next three rounds."

However, the Pro Stock situation had nothing to do with Brown's accident.

"We want to make that absolutely clear," Archambeault said. "There is no connection between the two situations."

Pro Stock cars do not make the tremendous downforce the nitro cars (Top Fuel and Funny Cars) produce. Brown's problem wasn't even in the same lane or the same part of the track where the Pro Stock crashes occurred.

After talking to several drivers, crew chiefs and NHRA officials, no one sees any connection between the Pro Stock traction problems and Brown's accident.

The main issue here is keeping the wheel on the car. Wheel tethers made of steel cable have been used in other racing series for more than a decade because of tragic incidents in the late 1990s.

In 1998, three spectators were killed at Michigan International Speedway when a tire flew into the grandstands from an accident in a CART race. A similar incident killed three people in an IndyCar Series event at Charlotte in 1999.

"I can tell you this was looked at several years ago," Archambeault said about tethers. "It was determined then that we couldn't configure a way to adapt it to our cars. We are talking to the teams now about what we can do to mount the wheel in a different way."

It appears the tether dilemma might get solved. John Medlen, a longtime crew chief at John Force Racing and one of the leading safety innovators in the NHRA, is working feverishly on a plan to add wheel tethers to the cars in time for the Gainesville event.

Eric Medlen, John's son, was killed in a test-session accident at Gainesville in 2007.

The other issue from Sunday's incident is catch fencing. NHRA tracks don't have catch fencing over the retaining walls, which is used everywhere in oval tracks.

Catch fencing at Talladega kept Carl Edwards' car from going in the grandstands last year on a last-lap crash, but debris from the car and the fence injured several spectators.

The outside edge of the racing surface is not as close to the grandstands at NHRA facilities. Each side of the racing lanes has return lanes between the grandstands and the track that teams use after a run is made.

The distance varies from track to track, but it's typically 20 to 25 yards between the retaining wall and the first row of grandstand seats.

In Sunday's case, catch fencing probably would not have stopped the tire because it bounced more than 30 feet in the air. And catch fencing didn't stop the tires in the two open-wheel incidents.

Even after the tragedy Sunday, some fans at the event told reporters they would not want to see catch fencing added because it would obstruct their view.

Medlen thinks it's time to consider it.

"There is no perfect solution," Medlen said. "But if we were voting today on putting up fencing, I would vote yes. Even if the tire goes through the fence, much of the energy would be dissipated by the fence."

The NHRA has made numerous safety advancements in recent years after the deaths of Medlen and Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta, who was killed in a crash at Englishtown, N.J., in 2008. Force was seriously injured in a crash at Ennis, Texas, in 2007.

The distance of a run was reduced from a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet after Kalitta's death. And JFR, through the Eric Medlen Project, has developed numerous advancements inside the cars to protect the drivers.

New advancements will come from Sunday's tragic moment. It was a one-in-a-trillion occurrence, and no one can say for sure whether it could have been prevented.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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