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Paper's study: Death toll over decade high

When someone dies in auto racing, it's often called a freak thing or a fluke _ so isolated and rare it can't happen again.

But deaths aren't rare or isolated. The Charlotte Observer reports today that at least 260 people in America died in auto racing incidents since 1990, an average of 22 a year. Among those killed in that span were 29 spectators, including five children.

Another 200 drivers and fans suffered traumatic injuries.

"That is not acceptable," said Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler who, like other racing leaders, guessed the death toll was half the real total. "This is something the industry has to deal with. We have a moral obligation."

The toll also surprised former Indy and Formula One champion Mario Andretti.

"We know how to make cars go fast," he said. "Now maybe we should spend even more time and energy in making cars safer."

In a study of fatal wrecks since 1990, the paper found these patterns:

+ Fences and barriers fail regularly.

At least 70 spectators were injured. Track owners say car parts and debris commonly clear fences, which vary in height from about 9-22 feet on oval tracks and 4-6 feet on drag strips.

Walls and guardrails have failed to keep cars on smaller tracks.

+ Potentially dangerous drivers are allowed to race.

Except in top divisions, drivers are rarely screened for experience or health problems.

Since 1990, at least 32 drivers died from heart attacks while racing, sometimes hurting other drivers or fans. Children too young for a driver's license can race at many tracks. Drivers with revoked licenses or drunk driving convictions are allowed to compete.

+ Head and neck injuries killed at least half the drivers.

Superstar Dale Earnhardt's death in February drew attention to the need for head restraints, which NASCAR recently mandated for top-level races. But most track owners and racing groups don't require them.

+ Medical response can be inadequate.

Emergency preparedness varies, depending on a track's size and resources. In at least 18 instances, families of dead and injured drivers say the rescue response was inadequate. Some small tracks provide untrained rescuers and no ambulances or firetrucks.

In more than 400 interviews, plus newspaper and Internet searches, the Observer documented 260 deaths in all levels of U.S. auto racing _ from Winston Cup, CART and Indy Racing League events to dirt-track races.

The study began with deaths in 1990, when more media and databases became available on the Internet. The study excluded deaths from youth go-karts, motorcycles, monster trucks, mud racing and racing schools.

Among the dead were 204 drivers, 29 spectators, 24 track workers and crew and three journalists. The tally is likely low because some deaths receive little, if any, media attention.