Speedway spectator safety

Oswego Speedway Supermodified drivers Tim Snyder (left), Joey Payne (center) and Joe Gosek (far right) battle down the front strech of the speedway. (Photo provided by Bill Taylor)
Oswego Speedway Supermodified drivers Tim Snyder (left), Joey Payne (center) and Joe Gosek (far right) battle down the front strech of the speedway. (Photo provided by Bill Taylor)

Racecar drivers know they are putting their lives at risk when they arrive at each race, but that should not be same case for race fans.

A horrific 12-car wreck during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 23 is causing race tracks, big and small, to reevaluate their overall safety.

The wreck caused the No. 32 car of Kyle Larson to launch into the air and slam into the catch fence, a few yards away from the finish line. The impact was so violent that parts of the car broke through the fence and into the grandstands. When the car finally came to a rest on the infield, the whole front clip of the car was missing and the engine was on the spectator side of the fence.

Fortunately that was as far as the engine went, but other heavy pieces of debris went into the first and second level of the grandstands, injuring more than 30 fans, according to NASCAR.

NASCAR was lucky everyone that was listed in critical condition has recovered and that there were no deaths. It was an eye-opening situation not only for NASCAR, but for tracks all around.

Popular local Central New York tracks such as Oswego Speedway, Brewerton Speedway and Fulton Speedway are affected by the situation in that fans may wonder just how safe they really are.

Oswego Speedway, located about six minutes from the Oswego State campus, is a 5/8-mile asphalt track that has been around for more than 60 years. Oswego Speedway Novelis Supermodified car owner John Nicotra, who has been going to the speedway since the early 1960s, said the speedway has never had any significant problems like what happened in Daytona, that he can remember.

“I’m sure there have been close calls,” Nicotra said. “Oswego [Speedway] has been fortunate that no cars have gone up into the fence. The fans are well protected.”

According to Dan Kapuscinski, public relations specialist for Oswego Speedway, the speedway is one of few tracks in the area that utilizes a dual catch fence in front of its spectators. That means the speedway has a 6-foot-high steel wall which separates the front stretch from the spectator area.

“Above that six foot steel wall is another four feet of catch fencing, reinforced with steel beams, which was totally replaced during the 2012 season with new higher grade fencing,” Kapuscinski said. “This top layer of catch fence above the steel wall itself is mounted at an angle back toward the race track which would help to deflect any flying debris back toward the racing surface, helping to protect fans.”

Kapuscinski also said that the front stretch spectator area is 30 feet away from the racing surface and in front of the spectator seating is another mesh catch fence which runs the entire length of the covered grandstand and all the way to the top of the roof, protecting all of the seats in those areas. Steel cables that run along the lining of the fence further support the fence as well.

Even with all of the safety aspects Oswego Speedway has in place, there is still one area of the track that Nicotra worries about.

“I do worry about the pit entrance a lot, if you hit one of them,” Nicotra said. “They [Oswego Speedway] have put heavier barrels and foam in dangerous areas, but there is not much you can do without rebuilding the whole track. Oswego has been at the front of driver and fan safety, always. They will do whatever they can to make the track as safe as possible.”

Keeping the track as safe as possible is their goal. Kapuscinski said track officials would not rest until they feel completely confident that everything is perfect.

“Despite upgrading the majority of our catch fencing in 2012, the terrible events at Daytona over the weekend have no doubt affected our thinking,” Kapuscinski said. “Plans are already in place to go back through our entire fencing areas again to ensure that we have done all that we can to further develop every safety aspect of Oswego Speedway for our many great fans. Auto racing is meant to be an enjoyable, family-friendly experience, and we aim to ensure that we have done all we can do to cultivate a safe and enjoyable atmosphere here at Oswego.”

It is the same atmosphere that both dirt tracks Brewerton and Fulton Speedways hope to provide. The two tracks—which are under the same ownership—attract large crowds on Friday and Saturday nights respectively. Even though their speeds do not reach that of Oswego Speedway, the close racing and consistently changing track conditions still create high risks and potential for a car to become airborne.

Marketing Director for both tracks, Cory Reed, believes that the accident at Daytona has raised the bar for keeping fans safe, but believes that both speedways are already well-equipped for any situation.

“I feel that Fulton and Brewerton already have better than industry standard safety features,” Reed said. “Our catch fences exceed the expectations of our insurance company. But this incident will encourage us to expect the unexpected and prepare for it and have a better readiness plan in place to handle incidents.”

Reed understands that every track has a history with some injuries. He said that it is a track official’s job and their hope to keep any injuries to a minimum.

“[We have] outfitted all of our trucks with new fire extinguishers,” Reed said. “Brewerton’s catch fence, new in 2009, is state-of-the-art for a short track. We also eliminated wheel covers that are poorly fastened on the wheels starting this season to prevent them from becoming flying objects.”

Brewerton and Fulton Speedways are staffed with qualified safety staff to ensure proper protocol if an incident were to occur, according to Reed. Their emergency medical personnel are trained to handle any situation.

Whether people are worried about the driver’s safety on the track or their own safety as spectators, Reed iterated that there is no need for concern.

“I’m confident that we offer a safe place to participate in and watch a race event,” Reed said. “Racing is inherently dangerous to participate in and drivers know that going into it. Luckily the cars and tracks today are much safer than they have ever been.”

Fans can experience the ISMA Supermodified Series and Small Block Supermodifieds at Oswego Speedway starting May 4. Opening day at Fulton Speedway will be April 13 with Patriot Sprint cars, Sportsman Modifieds, Late Models and Modified Lites in attendance. While the Modifieds, Modified Lites, IMCA Modifieds and 4-Cylinder Super Stock cars will be in action during opening day at Brewerton Speedway on April 19.