Lifetime fans of racing are no strangers to tragedy. Safety advancements can only go so far when the goal is to hit a turn at 200 miles an hour; even superstars, driving towards athletic immortality, can only be one broken part from seeing it all stripped away. Dan Wheldon, Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty… their deaths serve as glass-breaking moments, sobering reminders about how fragile life is for all of us. When fans sit in the stands, they have some faint acceptance that something horrible could happen on-track. The invocation, done every race day, serves as a subconscious reminder that the risk, however slight these days, is always there.
But what we never expect is for tragedy to twist, striking the stands filled with people who are there to do nothing more than watch and relax. That cold reality is hitting all of us this Monday morning, as a family grieves the loss of a loved one struck by lightning at a racetrack. A 41-year-old man, there to simply watch and enjoy, paid the ultimate price for paying to see his role models; with him, nine others were hurt, with several still recovering in area hospitals at press time.
Why? The answer to that question will be hotly debated over the coming weeks, with experts, lawyers, and critics lifting their finger and looking to point towards blame. It’s true Pocono Raceway pushed forward with the start of the race, after a two-hour delay when the forecast for the rest of the afternoon looked dismal at best. NASCAR takes pride in advertising they’ll never wave the green without a chance to go the full distance; but with a radar filled with yellows, oranges, and reds, even the most optimistic meteorologist couldn’t tell you the race would go a full 160 laps.
When and where the warnings came, weather threatening while racing continued, will be swept under the magnifying glass – and then some as the investigation unfolds. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the track at 4:12 PM but the racing itself didn’t stop until a half-hour later, at 4:42. More importantly, the warning expressly stated the heart of storm would be by Blakeslee, as close to the track as you’re going to get on record, at 4:50. That left eight minutes, maybe ten, for fans to seek shelter and run for cover.
In that warning, the National Weather Service concerns cut straight to the point. The storm would be capable of producing quarter size hail, damaging winds in excess of 60 miles an hour, and cloud-to-ground lightning for extended periods of time. So, officials at NASCAR, as well as Pocono Raceway, knew what they were getting. Yet they made the choice to keep racing for as long as possible before the downpour, even as lightning crackled within eyesight of the casual observer. They’ll have to live with that.
“We are deeply saddened that a fan has died and others were injured by lightning strikes following today’s race at Pocono,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with them as well as all those affected by this unfortunate accident.”
But just because NASCAR kept going doesn’t automatically mean they forced a fluke tragedy. The fatality occurred when lightning struck a car, outside Turn 3. Even a half-hour’s worth of time wouldn’t have prevented an entire parking lot from avoiding danger. Track officials also warned fans that the storm was coming, giving explicit instructions to seek cover under the grandstands. Officials at this facility didn’t sit there twiddling their thumbs; they clearly kept people informed. I listened on the radio, talked to sources later, and observed a clear sense of concern over safety.
Race fans had opportunities to digest; just not all of them listened. Even Jeff Gordon, while dodging the storm on his walk to Victory Lane, explained that some of the diehards stuck right there with him.
“The fans here are so loyal and avid,” he said. “When we were going back to the garage area, there was a group of fans just chanting up there that were not leaving.”
Perhaps no one will be affected more than Gordon, whose victory made up for six month’s worth of awful luck. Battling for fifth on the race’s final restart, he scooted by to first place the second leader Jimmie Johnson got loose and wrecked in front of the field. All of a sudden, a lost season has turned into one where Gordon controls his own playoff destiny; as we stand, he’s moved into the second and final “wild card” position for the Chase.
“It’s been a very interesting year, to say the least,” he said after locking up victory No. 86. “To see this race unfold the way it did, you know, certainly makes up for a lot of those would have, could have, should haves this year.”
Indeed, Gordon has had everything under the sun happen to him in 2012, from innocent crash victim, to poor pit stops, to blowing Hendrick engines that never break. The story on Sunday should have surrounded lightning of a different sort, the sudden strike to the front that may have saved a lost season for one of NASCAR’s best. But as even Gordon knows all too well, tragedy doesn’t believe in fairness.
“I’m so sorry to hear about the fans in Pocono,” Tweeted teammate Jimmie Johnson, echoing the thoughts of several other drivers heading into a dark Pennsylvania night. “My thoughts and prayers to all involved.”
“[I don't know] the details of what happened to cause the death at Pocono Raceway,” added Brad Keselowski on Twitter, a good reminder this story is far from over. “Until we do, all energy should be used to support the family.”
There’s no doubt that NASCAR fans and drivers will come together and do exactly that. The range of emotions seen on faces everywhere, from Track President Brandon Igdalsky to the shaken parking attendants who witnessed disaster, provided strength–as this community always does in times of crisis.
So as the story unfolds, let’s see if the right people remember what we all know about the races: tragedy can strike anyplace, anytime. That randomness moved unexpectedly from the track to the fans; no one ever wants to hear the words “death” and “racetrack” uttered in the same sentence. But that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly right to place blame.