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Did Pocono track warn NASCAR fans about storm soon enough?

Fan: Teams, officials ‘knew what was coming – we didn’t’

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Aug. 06, 2012

NASCAR and Pocono Raceway officials are reviewing the aftermath of Sunday night’s NASCAR Pennsylvania 400, where lightning strikes killed one fan, injured nine others and left some wondering whether the track did enough to warn them.

Some in attendance say there was little or no effort to warn fans until after driver Jeff Gordon had been declared the winner, at 4:55 p.m. That was 43 minutes after a severe thunderstorm warning was issued by the National Weather Service.

“When we finally got home last night, we watched the race on the DVR, and saw the (weather) radar the (NASCAR) crews were watching,” James Tenney, who traveled to the race from Walden, N.Y., told the Observer.

“They knew what was coming – we didn’t.”

Monroe County coroner Bob Allen confirmed 10 fans were struck by lightning, including Brian F. Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, Pa. He was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m.

One fan listed in critical condition has been upgraded to stable, and at least one of the remaining eight fans hospitalized has been released, track officials said. No other names were released.

NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said on a teleconference with reporters that each track must submit an emergency action plan, which the sanctioning body must approve. It would include protocol for severe weather.

“Ultimately (the responsibility) rests with them,” Higdon said. “The tracks need to ensure the safety of fans. It’s part of our expectations for them.”

Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky, at a Monday news conference, declined to share the track’s emergency plan.

Asked whether any warning was given to fans, Igdalsky replied: “There was (a warning given), but we’re trying to figure out exactly when those happened.”

Igdalsky promised to continue the investigation, and share the report.

“We’ll definitely give away that information,” he said.

What is known:

• The track’s Twitter feed posted a message mentioning the storm warning at 4:21 p.m. – with the cars still racing.

• The event was stopped when the red flag waved at 4:43 p.m., after 98 of a scheduled 160 laps.

• With heavy rain falling and flashes of lightning in the distance, the race was declared official at 4:55 p.m.

• The first lightning strike on track property occurred at 5:01 p.m., track officials said Monday.

Bethany Kenney of New Castle, Pa., attended the race with her husband, Larry, and said they heard numerous warnings of impending bad weather before a storm delayed the start of the race, but none before the deadly storm that ended it.

“To be honest, we started to leave early just because the skies looked so bad to the west,” she said by telephone. “I heard about the storm warning from listening to the radio broadcast, so around 4:30 p.m. we decided the situation didn’t look good and left.”

Kenney said she and her husband saw the lightning strike shortly after 5 p.m. “It literally shook our car as we waited to leave the parking lot,” she said.

The Kenneys might be in the minority. Some wonder whether fans would heed warnings during a race.

“That’s the quandry,” said Humpy Wheeler, president of the Wheeler Co. and former longtime track president at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He said he recalled at least a half dozen times during his tenure at CMS when fans were encouraged to seek shelter because of impending weather while activity continued on the race track.

“As a track promoter, I don’t want fans in the grandstands when a storm hits,” Wheeler said. “NASCAR tends not to throw cautions for weather until the first rain drops fall.

“Those two things don’t always agree.”

Said Igdalsky, “People are focused on one thing and may not even hear it. You could make 100 announcements, and they may only hear one.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said the track has the city of Concord’s emergency management director on site at every NASCAR weekend to help monitor severe weather situations. The track tries to inform fans of severe weather through social media, the track’s website, the public address system, speakers in the camping areas and, in severe cases, by sending workers through the campsites to notify fans.

“We have a very proactive system and it works best when everyone is involved and kept abreast of all available information as soon as possible,” Cooper said. “That way, no matter what the situation, we’re trying to respond for what is the very best for the fans.”

Igdalsky said Pocono would look for lessons from the tragedy.

The track, he said, already has its first: “Mother Nature is sneaky.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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