Spot News Writing
Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
After Pocono Death, Should NASCAR Do More To Protect Fans
LONG POND, Pa. – With the drop of a red flag, NASCAR can stop an event whenever racing conditions are deemed dangerous.
Should the sanctioning body do the same when the grandstands surrounding the track are in peril?
That was the question facing the sport Monday as track promoters and NASCAR executives scrutinized their race procedures and emergency warning systems after a fan was killed by a lightning strike after Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway.
"The tricky part is making the decision to clear the facility," said Ed Klima, director of emergency services for Dover Motorsports, which owns Dover International Speedway. "The facility is ultimately responsible for fans' safety. With that said, it's obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there are still cars going around the track."
Pocono cleared its grandstands after a torrential downpour delayed Sunday's race by more than two hours. But after a severe weather warning was issued at 4:12 p.m., the track didn't evacuate fans before NASCAR stopped the race and made Jeff Gordon the winner at 4:54 p.m. The fatal lightning strike occurred seven minutes later in a parking lot behind the grandstands.
While NASCAR is responsible for driver safety, track officials are responsible for spectator safety. NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said its initial analysis showed Pocono had provided adequate warnings to its fans. "The track acted appropriately, and we are aligned with them," Higdon said. "They have a very substantial emergency action plan that we review with them well in advance (of race weekends). … Ultimately, (the tracks) need to ensure the safety of the fans up to our expectations for them."
Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky said the track was in contact with NASCAR officials about the threatening weather but didn't know whether stopping the race to clear the stands was considered.
The race is NASCAR's call," Igdalsky said. "That's always their call."
Pocono's Facebook page and social media networks were filled by fan outcry Monday and debate over whether fans were alerted properly. Igdalsky said the track was reviewing its records of how many announcements were made but conceded some fans didn't hear it. He said emptying the seats during a race was more difficult because fans weren't paying heed with their attention being diverted by multihued cars whizzing past and with the constant rumble of 800-horsepower engines.
"You could make 100 announcements, and they may only hear one," Igdalsky said. Though there are many instances in which NASCAR stopped practice and qualifying to help evacuate the grandstands, it rarely happens during races. There was a Camping World Truck Series race at The Milwaukee Mile in 2008 in which people were ushered from their seats during a 25-minute red flag for bad weather.
It's not uncommon for tracks to cancel and postpone track activity, sometimes several hours or even days, in advance of race weekends. In September 2003, Dover canceled practice and qualifying Friday two days early because of Hurricane Isabel moving through the East Coast. In September 2008, Richmond International Raceway announced on a Friday afternoon that it was moving a Saturday night Sprint Cup race to Sunday afternoon because of a tropical-storm forecast. Last year, Atlanta Motor Speedway moved its race from Sunday to Tuesday afternoon after a forecast of severe weather for Monday. Atlanta President Ed Clark said evacuating his 99,000-seat grandstands during a race would be challenging.
"I'm not casting any blame here (but) as long as cars are going around track a lot of people aren't going to pay attention to whatever you tell them," Clark said. "I'm not trying to do NASCAR's job. Our job is to manage the facility and take care of the people in the facility. Theirs is to run the race.
"With some fans, if there's a car going around the track, they'll sit in a monsoon to watch it. That's why we have the greatest fans in the world."
Humpy Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway for more than three decades before his 2008 retirement, said the track twice had evacuated its grandstands while races were running.
Wheeler said if he was 100% sure the track would be hit by a bad storm, he would lobby NASCAR to stop the event to help relocate fans beneath the grandstands in an orderly fashion.
"NASCAR would not usually put out the yellow or red flag until it actually started raining," Wheeler said. "I had a problem with this, because often lightning begins (before that). They had a tough call because of gas, tire and pit sequencing but I am a firm believer in stopping the race before rain hits if lightning is probable. If it is just rain, then it is a different story.
"My beliefs are grounded on 50 years of serious weather study and observation at tracks. I believe the track manager and NASCAR should mutually make the decision as to when to stop the event. And if lightning is highly probable, it should be done before the rain comes."
The National Weather Service agrees. It suggests that when lightning is within 15 miles of a venue, an evacuation of the facility should begin if it appears the thunderstorm is moving in. When lightning is detected within 8 miles of a venue, the National Weather Service suggests that "event officials suspend activities."
Higdon said NASCAR was conducting a thorough review to consider changes to its policies and race procedures, but that weather and fans' safety could factor into the decision to throw a red flag.
"It's definitely a joint process; we're sitting side by side with track officials (in the control tower)," Higdon said. "We're in close communication. As far as the race is concerned, that is ultimately our call. The facility and the stands, that is the responsibility of the (race) promoter.
"We're in lockstep; very rarely are we doing things independently. There will be certainly cases where an evacuation would have taken place at a track while a race might still be going on.
"But ultimately, we're the ones responsible for making decisions on a red flag like (Sunday)."
Klima said there have been 15 to 20 weather-related evacuations during race weekends at Dover Motorsports facilities (including the defunct Memphis Motorsports Park and Nashville Superspeedway) since he joined the company in 1996.
"In each scenario we worked with NASCAR and were able to convey the situation to them so we could get cars off the track or do things to make sure we tried to get everybody out of the grandstands," Klima said. "We have had a couple of instances where we have stopped competition for weather. Several years ago at Nashville on practice and qualifying, we had an F4 tornado on the ground headed right toward the track and ceased all activity."
Tracks today use public address systems, video boards, social media networks and portable loudspeakers on police cars to help spread the word to fans. Daytona International Speedway implemented a text messaging system this season to push out weather updates to fans' cellphones during race weekends.
Pocono made announcements via Twitter and Facebook and its track PA, but Igdalsky wouldn't specify further details of its emergency notification plan. Some fans who attended Sunday's race complained the track should have done more to notify them. Joan Alain of Ottawa, Canada, said her phone didn't have sufficient coverage for monitoring Twitter.
"There's got to be more warning put out," Alain said. "I think something has to be done. It's our responsibility as fans, but it's really hard when you're caught up in it, and if you don't have a warning that there's a severe, dangerous thunderstorm overhead, then people aren't going to react as they normally would."
Knowing where to send fans also can be a challenge in NASCAR, where racetracks don't have the capabilities to handle overflow crowds.
"One of the biggest concerns with a motor sports venue is lightning," Klima said. "The majority of motor sports venues are metal structures as opposed to an NFL stadium, and there's inherent differences in the construction."
Klima said evacuating a NASCAR crowd "depends on the scenario and amount of time. We're trying to get them to an area safer than where they are. That's very difficult in motor sports venues. In an NFL stadium, you can send them down to a mezzanine, and they can hold majority of people or in the concourse."
Igdalsky said Pocono advised fans to seek shelter in their cars. At Texas Motor Speedway, President Eddie Gossage said the track advises fans to go underneath its 122,377-seat grandstands and also opens its concession and souvenir stands and 11 elevator tower stairwells to provide shelter. The track's grandstands are grounded to prevent fans from being hit beneath them.
"You can't lock the gate and not let them leave," Gossage said. "You have a lot of fans who decide, 'I'm going to the car,' or, 'I can beat it.' That's when you run into problems."
Gossage, who has been president of Texas since its 1997 opening, isn't sure that redflagging a race necessarily is the best decision for evacuating the grandstands.
"There is a risk," he said. "What if you stop the race and advise people to take shelter and the storm goes around you? Is that the right thing to do? Whenever you do that, you risk putting people in position of danger because they might respond a little overly enthusiastically and have people trampled. It's dangerous to advise people to evacuate because some overreact.
"I don't know you can write a plan and say, 'This is what you do, and if lightning is so many miles away, you stop the race.' "
In instances when Dover Motorsports has tried to clear the grandstands, Klima said sometimes a handful of fans still refused to leave.
"Anytime you have these emergency situations, it's easy to go back and Monday morning quarterback," Klima said. "We can plan and put procedures in place but at the end of the day, people still have to take ownership for their actions. "We can clear the grandstands and institute a severe weather plan, and people still can choose not to follow it."
Contributing: Dustin Long in Charlotte