GAINESVILLE — Scott Dupree has been attending the NHRA Gatornationals for more than a decade and, as an avid fan of both NASCAR and NHRA drag races, the Gainesville resident is well aware of the danger fans in attendance may face.
That reality was reiterated last month when Susan Zimmer, a 52-year-old from Wisconsin, died after being hit by a tire that broke loose from a Top Fuel dragster during a first-round race at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway.
But like thousands of race fans who will flock to Gainesville Raceway this weekend to attend the NHRA Gatornationals, the recent tragedy in Arizona hasn't caused Dupree to consider bypassing the event.
"You feel terrible anytime you hear (about a tragedy), whether it was at Monster Jam where a spinning truck throws something off, or NASCAR where a part flies into the crowd, you feel terrible," Dupree said. "And it's easy to say as a fan that didn't have it happen to them, 'That's one of those things that happen.' But you probably have a lot of things that happen at the track that just never get any attention. You could go to a baseball game and get hit in the head with a foul ball, that doesn't mean you should shut down baseball."
For officials at the Gainesville Raceway in northwest Gainesville, safety remains a primary concern, but not one they are willing to publicly discuss. Donald Robertson, executive general manager of the Gainesville Raceway said Tuesday afternoon that NHRA officials would not allow him to speak on the issue of safety at the track in the wake of the accident in Arizona — which was the first participant fatality at an NHRA event since the mid 1970s.
The Gainesville track is considered one of the fastest tracks on the NHRA circuit and includes a 675-foot drag strip. A chain-link fence separates spectators from the cars on the track. Because of the nature of drag racing, control of the cars is a primary concern. But NHRA officials have to weigh the fan-friendliness of the event, which is a major draw, with safety.
"Spectators don't just sit in the stands. They get to go into the pit area, stand there and watch the guys rebuild cars, talk to the drivers, watch them disassemble and rebuild," Robertson said. "And the driver is standing at the end of the trailer chatting with the fans and signing autographs. It's the most accessible motor- sport in the world. Fans can't get near the cars and drivers like this in any other racing sport."
But that doesn't mean change isn't necessary.
The National Hot Rod Association is studying the possible implementation of more safety measures.
"We are going to look at everything," NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault said. "We won't walk away from this and do nothing. We will react and make changes, as we have proven many times in the past."
Among possible options are tethering tires to the cars and the installation of catch fencing at NHRA tracks, although track experts said catch fencing may not have prevented Zimmer's death because of the height the tire bounced.
Fans say they've already seen improvements over the years.
"A lot of what they've done at other racetracks is they've put up fences and cages to keep car parts from going into the stands," Fort White resident Lenard Leggett said. "And at some, they actually have cables attached to some of the rims so if they do fly, it's safer. But it does take away from it a little bit for the fans. I know when I used to go to Daytona and watch the Supercross race, you had to get high enough in the stands so you weren't looking through a fence. You were safer because you were farther away, but the closer you are to it, the more exciting."
"I think people that are drawn to racing, particularly drag racing, are drawn to the power and the speed," Dupree added. "These are things people can identify with because most people drive cars. There was a time when there weren't those areas — there's an area with a buffer zone between track and stands now that used to not be there. You have to ask yourself what's reasonable? You can't put the track in a bubble."
Roush okay with penalty for Edwards
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Team owner Jack Roush said he is satisfied with the three-race probation penalty NASCAR levied against his driver after Carl Edwards intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski. "We are satisfied that NASCAR fairly considered all the circumstances in its decision to discipline Carl," said Roush, who looked forward to a NASCAR-called meeting of all the parties involved.
Waltrip to run again: Michael Waltrip, who said he would put aside most of his driving after the Daytona 500 to focus on running his team, will enter the Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in April.
Formula One: Ross Brawn, 55, the principal of Mercedes GP, received the Officer of the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace in London for guiding his team to last season's title. The new F1 season opens Sunday at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Information from Times wires contributed to this report. Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]