Race Weekend Central

Severe Weather Warnings: What Should Be The NASCAR Fan’s Safety Net

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_If you’re looking for the usual Beyond the Cockpit feature, it will return next week. In its place, we have a special first-person story from S.D. Grady about her own encounter with stormy weather at Pocono several years ago._

Was the lightning strike at Pocono that claimed Brian Zimmerman’s life and sent nine others to area hospitals a fluke? From personal experience, I don’t think so.

It was 2005. My much adored and abused travel trailer was parked inside the exit of Turn 3 at Pocono. And the clouds were building behind the empty grandstand. The black, purple-green kind that taught me I should hide under the stairs when I was a child. I looked around as the wind started to pick up and the scent of rain blew across the track. We scurried around our camping spot throwing as much stuff inside as possible, taking up the awning–and then it hit.

Rain beat at us and we retreated inside. Lightning and thunder rumbled overhead. My husband wondered aloud, “You think I should take down the flagpole?”

I didn’t think long. “No.”

Moments later, sound and light combined in an explosion that sent me to my knees. I opened my eyes and realized my teeth buzzed, but I still had a fiberglass roof overhead. We stared at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. We muttered the usual, “That was close.” Mother Nature continued to thrash the infield.

When we poked our heads outside about ten minutes later, fellow campers were approaching our RV and asked if we were okay. Apparently the flagpole served as a lightning rod and the trailer a Faraday cage, the bolt exiting through our satellite dish sitting on the ground. Others had lost awnings, roof hatches, various pieces of lawn furniture, but we all remained whole. And scared, minus bits of equipment in the trailer and the truck (the electro-magnetic pulse did in all the electronics.)

We swore we’d never approach camping at the races the same again. We realized what little protection existed between us and the most damaging weather.

At Dover one year later a storm rolled in and we were told to evacuate the seats, but not hide under the grandstands. With no other major structures nearby, were we supposed to make the mile hike back to the trailer? With the wind whipping and clouds churning overhead, that didn’t seem like a real good option. Then again, the track wasn’t stopping competition a good half-hour before the storm hit. It was already spitting and thundering. Our lead time to find shelter didn’t exist. We ignored the sound advice of the track and ended up huddled beneath the aluminum stands, hoping the massive lightning rod wouldn’t work.

Besides Dover, there have been torrential downpours at Watkins Glen, while the county was declared a Federal Disaster Area, Hurricane Ivan doing a do-si-do up and down the East Coast and in Lot L at NHIS, a tornado at Darlington and another furious thunderstorm at Atlanta. And I only make it to two or three races in a year. We just keep gladly throwing ourselves into the path of destruction over and over because we are racing fools.

When you add it up, severe weather doesn’t seem like such an anomaly at the races, does it? Yet, when asked where I’m supposed to go in case of such impending storms, I haven’t a clue beyond back to my trailer or car. I’ve never received Inclement Weather plans from a track, even when purchasing camping sites. But that’s not really a surprise.

Tracks by their nature lack any kind of large structures capable of protecting the 80k fans attending the event. The parking and camping lots are located at a good distance in order to facilitate foot traffic in and out of the venue. Executing a quick evacuation is geographically near impossible. Time, what the fan needs to reach safety is time.

However, on the other hand of this dicey equation we have the NASCAR officials remaining focused on completing the day’s events–hopefully without chopping a race short. They fight to keep the green and yellow flags flying until there’s no hope of the track going green without a lengthy jet-drying session… And the clock keeps ticking.

So, the cars keep racing, which works for me as a fan. I’m always eager to watch any kind of lap being put down on the track. A little sprinkle won’t chase me away. Heat. Wind. Threats of hurricanes. I might check the weather on my scanner, but I might not if the battle is heating up. I can’t hear any kind of PA announcement with engines running and spotters chatting in my headset. I completely ignore social media when presented with 800 horsepower machines. I am a captive of the drama playing out on the track, even after being struck by lightning and “learning my lesson.” I am a hopeless case, and probably a fair example of your average fan in the stands. We don’t want to go!

So, what to do? How do we prevent another tragedy like what we suffered at Pocono this past weekend? How does NASCAR, as a sport–not a sanctioning body–protect its most valuable resource, the fan?

Simple. Give the fans time and space to protect themselves. At the moment a severe storm warning is issued for the track, all on-track activity should be stopped. No yellows. Drop the red flag. Take the eye candy away. This will grab the spectator’s attention faster than anything. After, place evacuation instructions on the massive Sprint Vision screens. Use the PA system. Ask teams to also repeat the evacuation order over their radios. Have track workers herd fans out of the stands. Tell fans where to seek shelter. And yes, I’m afraid, some fans will be jerks and give everybody a hard time.

Most warnings give a good 15 to 20 minutes before the worst of the storm arrives. That should be plenty of time to find the right kind of space in which to hide.

I do believe in taking responsibility for yourself. And it would be so easy to simply let NASCAR and the tracks off the hook where fan safety is concerned when the clouds start to boil. But, I also recognize my own weakness. I love racing to the exclusion and distraction of all else. I’m afraid my good sense takes a holiday when those engines turn over. I can’t be the only one with this affliction, either. We need a little help returning to our sensible selves.

So, I’m asking NASCAR and the track owners to look at this situation good and hard. Consider where all those fans would be safest when the skies light up. Then do the right thing and use that red flag as a first option, rather than a last and too final a resort.

_Note: Pocono Raceway has “set up a memorial fund”:http://www.poconoraceway.com/pennsylvania-400-memorial-fund-established.html for the lightning strike victims. Click “here”:http://www.poconoraceway.com/pennsylvania-400-memorial-fund-established.html to see how you can help._

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