Friday, November 17, 2017
Public safety

Citrus County Speedway crash kills fixture in local racing community

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INVERNESS — The night was almost over.

A full crowd packed the Citrus County Speedway for the races. They came to see the Saturday novelty events: Colorful street stocks making laps. Cars zipping around a flagpole. Vehicles hooked to boats and trailers zooming down the track.

In the second-to-last race, 13 school buses cranked out figure-eight loops. Coming out of a turn, a green bus went up on two wheels, then flipped. Another bus ran into the overturned vehicle.

"It crushed it," recalled race announcer Tony Modica. "It crushed the driver."

Rescue crews pulled the driver out of his safety harness and out of the upside-down bus. But the driver, 62-year-old Charles "Chick" Whitehead of Ocala, died at the scene around 9:50 p.m., according to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. No other injuries were reported in the collision.

Whitehead was a fixture in the local racing community, heavily involved in putting on the school bus races, Modica said.

Modica and sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney both said they believed Saturday's incident is the first fatal accident in the more than 50-year history of the Inverness racetrack.

A speedway official declined to comment Sunday.

But it marked the second time since May that someone died in a sanctioned race in the area. On May 19, a crash on the Auburndale Speedway in Polk County killed a 12-year-old boy competing in a car race regularly scheduled for children ages 10 to 16.

The Inverness speedway holds weekly Saturday evening races from February through November. It's closed for a two-week summer break — unrelated to the accident, Modica said — with its next event scheduled July 21, according to the track's website.

The school bus race features stripped-down buses without their seats, windows or doors. They speed through 20 criss-crossing laps on the 3/8-mile track. That brings them through the center of the figure eight 40 times.

"Once they get going, it gets crazy," Modica said.

The first heat of buses had finished, and the second round of buses had looped through just a few times before the crash. With the weight of the school buses, they sometimes skid up on two wheels around the turns, Modica said. But the buses tend to fall on their sides, not roll over.

Unlike most racing cars, Modica said, the school bus wasn't outfitted with roll bars. Installed like a cage around a driver, the pipes can prevent the roof from caving in during a crash.

The district Medical Examiner's Office in Leesburg will perform an autopsy. The Sheriff's Office is investigating.

Whitehead's family could not be reached for comment Sunday.

State records list him as an officer for the Inverness-based Tri-Co Communications, which provides two-way radio communication services in Central Florida.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

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