NASCAR admits that catch-fence system failure is not new. Remarkably, in a moment of candor, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing operations, remarked “‘This is not new.'” Viv Bernstein, NY Times, dated February 24, 2013. It truly is not. In 1987, the gravity of this known danger of poorly designed catch-fencing systems was exposed. During the Thursday, May 7, 1987, time-trials for the Indy 500, one of Roger Penske’s race cars crashed into the concrete wall at turn 4, shedding its right front wheel. Hungness, Carl (1987). The 1987 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook. Carl Hungness Publishing (there also exists, actual video footage of this incident with Roger Penske witnessing its occurrence). The wheel assembly careened over the catch fence and into the grandstands. Fortunately – then – no one was seated in the grandstands. Days later, Indy’s luck ran out when Race-car driver, Tony Bettenhausen’s wheel assembly flew over the catch fence and killed Lyle Kurtenbach. Staff writer, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1987. The height of the crash wall at Indy was 31 inches and the catch fence system was 14 feet. In 1993, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway underwent major renovations and safety improvement. The crash wall height was increased to 42 and the catch fence to 19 feet, 18 inches coupled with increased arcing over and above the racetrack. Despite this history and industry knowledge, Penske Motorsports, Inc. and Michigan International Speedway, did nothing to modify, improve or make safer its catch fencing system. Its crash wall remained at 48 inches and catch fence only at 11 feet. And the consequence of that failure proved horrific when, on July 26, 1998, race car driver Adrian Fernandez crashed into the wall at turn 4, and his car’s wheel assembly careened over the fence into the grandstands, killing three spectators and maiming several others. After this horrible incident, in August of 1998, the Michigan International Speedway hurriedly implemented safety modifications to its fencing system that were readily known and available to the industry. The fence was raised to 17 feet above the well, still shorter than Indy’s improvements. The arcing or overhang was also extended by 4 additional feet. But it appears that these heights still remain inadequate. That is because Daytona’s catch fence purportedly measures 22 feet. Images of the catch fence, however, illustrate that although it is taller than either Indy or Michigan, it does not arc or reach out over the race-track in the manner and design of Indy’s or Michigan’s. Again, these are just lay observations from the available photography when compared to the actual designs of Michigan’s, for example. But clearly, it is a relevant starting point to any investigation into any potential personal injury damage claim brought by an injured fan.

Authored by L. Page Graves

Race car wheel assemblies keep flying over catch fences. For the motor-sports industry, that is neither new nor a freak accident. And with the recent incident at the Daytona 500 last Saturday, with yet another wheel assembly flying over the catch fence system, NASCAR and the motor-sports industry are renewing their historical debate about fan safety and catch-fence systems. It should be noted that despite this unedited footage from ABS News, Daytona President Joie Chitwood, III, said Sunday that he did not know if the wheel went over the fence, or through it. Jim Utter et al, Charlotte Observer, dated February 25, 2013. Respectfully, the ABC footage linked herein dispels NASCAR’s/Daytona’s attempt to shape the public message. According to H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, “‘The worst thing that anyone can think about is a wheel going over the fence.'” Utter, supra. The motor-sports industry has been debating with themselves for years about fan safety versus revenues. According to Samuel Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers and referring to simply moving fans away from the track, “‘Obviously it will be a revenue decision by track owners because you’ll be eliminating that set of rows [and] [t]hat’s probably why they haven’t done it.'” Utter, supra. According to Izod IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, “It’s an industry-wide problem, and one we can fix quickly.'” And further, Reay said “‘We’ve been talking about it for a long time….'” Olson et al, USA Today, February 24, 2013. Echoing Reay’s comments is three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who tweeted “‘it’s time @ indycar @ nascar other sanctioning bodies & promoters work on alternative to catch fencing. There has to be a better solution.'” Nate Ryan, USA Today, February 24, 2013. But as the foregoing historical debate documents, there are better solutions which have been available to the industry for years; time and time again, though, what is getting in the way of those safety improvements is the bottom line to the track owners and the industry.

Smith & Johnson Attorneys, P.C., are experienced in handling race car crash debris litigation. L. Page Graves served as assistant legal counsel and research counsel for one of the families who tragically lost a loved one during the 1998 Michigan International Speedway incident which when, on July 26, 1998, race car driver Adrian Fernandez crashed into the wall at turn 4, and his car’s wheel assembly careened over the fence into the grandstands, killing three spectators and maiming several others. Critical to that successful resolution of the family’s wrongful death claim was counsels’ tireless research and documentation of the motor-sports industry’s actual knowledge of the exact risks posed to its fans and its repetitive, reactionary approach to “fixing the problem” each time a spectator got hurt or killed.