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Race car kills 2 in pit row at California track

Associated Press and Observer reports
Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013

A speeding race car careened off a track and into pit row during warm-up laps at a California raceway Saturday night, killing a 14-year-old boy and a 68-year-old man, officials said.

Six or seven cars were on the track when the car veered into pit row and ran into the two victims, who were standing side-by-side, Yuba County Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Johnson said. He said the two were affiliated with one of the cars or drivers but did not yet know how. It’s unclear if they were fans at the race or working in the pits.

Neither the 17-year-old driver nor anyone else was injured, he said.

The man was pronounced dead at the scene at Marysville Raceway Park, some 40 miles north of Sacramento, and the boy was declared dead either at the hospital or in an ambulance, the officer told The Associated Press.

A Charlotte Observer study shows that at least 14 crew members and 46 spectators were killed in auto races throughout the United States between 1991 and 2010.

The raceway was hosting the California Sprint Car Civil War Series on the opening day of its season. More than 60 of at least 476 racing deaths since 1991 were at Sprint races, run at short oval paved or dirt tracks. The pits are among the most dangerous areas. Some tracks keep fans out of the pits and the infield; others charge premium prices to get close to the racing.

There was also a fatality at Marysville Raceway in August 2010. During what had been billed as the first “IBRRA Big Rig Trucks’’ event, Merle Shepherd Jr.’s semi became tangled with another race truck and landed upside down in the infield, newspaper reports said. Shepherd was crushed. The next day, track promoters said they would shut the track down for good. But they reopened the track after support from the local racing community. The Appeal-Democrat reports that in June, Shepherd’s widow, Linda, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court against the track operators. The case is pending.

Steven Blakesley, a race announcer who was watching the race from the stands, said the sprint cars were doing so-called “hot laps” about an hour before the race when a car driven by Chase Johnson, traveling at about 90 mph, couldn’t make a turn.

“There must have been a mechanical problem,” said Blakesley, the track announcer at Watsonville’s Ocean Speedway. “The car didn’t slow down.”

Blakesley said the car ran through a gap between the track and pit row, hit an empty golf-style cart then ran out of the view of the stands, where fans were mostly silent and left to speculate about what was happening.

He said the next thing he was able to see was CPR being performed on two people, and later a body being covered and crime scene tape going up.

The bio on Johnson’s website said he’s a senior at Petaluma High School north of San Francisco and is a fourth-generation race car driver.

Blakesley said Johnson had been driving for two years, and many on the sprint car circuit, seen as a stepping stone to higher levels like NASCAR, began as young as 15, as Johnson did.

He said others on the circuit, where small, high-powered cars race on short dirt ovals, were older drivers whose careers had peaked earlier.

The Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol were investigating to determine the cause of the crash, Ron Johnson said. The Sheriff’s Department also serves as the county’s coroner and will determine the identities and official cause of death for the two victims, he said.

An outgoing message on the track’s phone line said only that Saturday’s race had been canceled, and a message left for a raceway spokesman was not immediately returned.

The race track fatalities come less than a month after a crash on the last lap of a race at Daytona International Speedway injured at least 30 fans Feb. 23. The victims were sprayed with large chunks of debris – including a tire – after a car careened into the fencing that is designed to protect the massive grandstands lining the track.

At another NASCAR race in 2009 at Talladega, the crowd was showered with debris and seven fans were injured when a car sailed upside-down into the front-stretch fence on a furious dash to the finish line, showering the stands with debris. Seven fans sustained minor injuries.

And in 2010 at a National Hot Rod Association event in Chandler, Ariz., a woman was killed by a tire that flew off a crashing dragster at Firebird International Raceway.