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Man dies at speedway
Sep 13, 2004 12:00 am
The concrete oval of the Nashville Superspeedway claimed its first victim yesterday when a man crashed at about 100 mph in a private event featuring the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
The identity of the 56-year-old victim, described by authorities only as a Middle Tennessee resident, was being withheld on Friday pending notification of his family.
The man – the first fatality at the track since its opening in 2001 – was apparently an employee of the General Motors Corp., which was hosting a private gathering for some of its workers.
The Richard Petty Racing Experience has been providing stock car enthusiasts with the opportunity to simulate the high-speed sport for 14 years with only one previous fatality, a spokesperson said yesterday.
"This kind of thing is very uncommon," said Chris McKee, marketing director for the Richard Petty Racing Experience.
McKee, as well as Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe, noted that witnesses indicated the man could have suffered a medical condition while behind the wheel of the race car, resulting in a loss of control of the vehicle.
"It's possible there may have been some medical problems that caused it and we're going to check those things out," said Ashe, adding that an autopsy has been requested for the victim.
He said a Petty employee also on the track noticed in his rearview mirror that the man's driving "suddenly became erratic."
"It's certainly a possibility that a heart attack or some kind of seizure could have caused him to lose control," Ashe said. "Hopefully we'll have some answers in a few days."
He said Tennessee Highway Patrol accident reconstruction specialists have been called in to formally investigate the fatality.
McKee, contacted at the Petty family's base of operations in North Carolina, said "medical professionals" on the scene also indicated a medical condition could have contributed to the fatal wreck.
"The man was there as part of a corporate group. It's all speculative right now, but the medical professionals on the scene seem to think that he may have suffered from some type of medical problem," McKee said.
Ashe said "medical people were on site" when the crash occurred and that the victim was pronounced dead at the scene.
"It's a sad, tragic event, particularly under these circumstances," Ashe said. "They were out here for a day of pleasure and enjoyment that just took a tragic turn for them."
Speedway officials had no comment on the accident, referring questions to the Petty racing empire.
McKee said the victim was participating in the "rookie driver experience," in which the driver is alone in the vehicle, but follows an instructor's car around the track for eight laps. The deadly crash came on the fourth or fifth lap, McKee said.
"Our safety is second to none," McKee said. "Of course, our thoughts and prayers go out to the man's family."
Ashe said witnesses on the scene described the man's driving as "just fine" until the seconds just before his sudden, shocking loss of control.
"From what we can gather his driving just became erratic all of a sudden. It's really a tragic accident. The people that participate undergo classroom instruction, training on the track. He was using all the proper safety equipment and restraints, the vehicle just hit the wall at a fairly violent angle," Ashe said.
The sheriff said those on the scene at the time of the crash estimated the vehicle's speed at about 100 mph as the victim began to lose control.
"They don't go as fast as in an actual race but faster than most of us would drive on the interstate. The cars are the real deal, actual race cars," he said.
Ashe praised the cooperation of track officials as well as those with the Petty team, saying "all of them went out of their way to be cooperative and helpful."
"It was a very heartbreaking, tragic turn of events and everyone involved has gone way beyond everything we asked of them. The people at the race track, in particular, have been extremely helpful," the sheriff said.
Early in the track's planning stages, he said, officials of the facility and local authorities devised a "contingency plan" in the event of a fatality or other type of catastrophic crash at the superspeedway.
"It's just horrible that we had to use it," he said. "He had made several laps around the track and was doing a good job when tragedy just struck, that's about all you can say about it."
Though it will likely be several weeks before full autopsy results are complete, Ashe said investigators hope to establish "some preliminary findings within the next few days."
"Hopefully, at the very least, we'll be able to answer a couple of the most pressing questions," he said.
(Staff Writers Corinne Galeano and Brian Harville contributed to this article.)
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.