Fans injured in walkway collapse

Earnhardt Jr. wins The Winston; at least 50 hurt afterward

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2000

CONCORD, N.C. -- At least 50 people were injured Saturday night after a concrete walkway collapsed as fans left Lowe's Motor Speedway at the end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in The Winston.

About 30 feet of the 15-foot-high walkway collapsed into the four-lane highway at about 11:15 p.m. The bridge connecting the track to a parking lot snapped at the center and folded in half on U.S. 29.

Of the approximately 50 people injured, 12 were airlifted to a hospital in Charlotte. The rest were taken by ambulance to Concord and Charlotte hospitals, said Charlotte Fire Department Captain Rob Brifley. He said there were no fatalities at the scene.

Track president H.A. ''Humpy'' Wheeler said 75 people were on the bridge when it collapsed. He said the bridge was built around 1995 to better facilitate the traffic flow at the speedway.

''The positive news is that are no fatalities at this point,'' track spokesman Jerry Gappens said. ''The majority of the injuries are minor, although some are serious.''

Witnesses said that immediately after the collapse, bodies were lying on the ground and people were helping emergency workers attend to the injured.

''This is not the way we wanted this night to end,'' Wheeler said.

At about the time the bridge collapsed, Earnhardt Jr. became the first rookie to win NASCAR's all-star event when he blew past Dale Jarrett with one lap to go.

Earnhardt was sixth when a multi-car collision brought out a caution with eight laps to go. He then told crew chief Tony Eury he couldn't win with the car he was driving and convinced him to give him four fresh tires.

The result was a much quicker car then the rest of the field, allowing Earnhardt to rapidly move through the traffic and pass Dale Jarrett for the lead with one lap to go.

Earnhardt then easily pulled away to pick up a $515,000 payout from the record $2 million purse.

''I was running real good, but we were tight and I told Tony I needed four tires,'' Earnhardt said. ''We sat there and thought about it and thought about it and finally said, 'We didn't come here to run second or third, let's take the tires.'''

Jarrett finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jerry Nadeau and Jeff Burton.

Earnhardt Sr., the only three-time winner in Winston history, raced to Victory Lane to congratulate his son.

''I thought I could give Dale Jarrett some trouble and then I saw this kid running in my rearview mirror and couldn't believe it,'' Earnhardt Sr. said. ''He is just something else.''

Earnhardt Jr., a rookie this season, made the field by winning two races this season. He's the only Winston Cup driver to win more than once.

The victories got him into The Winston, which was more than enough for him -- even after Wheeler picked him to win it earlier in the week.

''I didn't plan on winning The Winston, to be honest with you,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''We were just happy to be running it. It's a prestigious race and I'd watched a lot of them from up there in the second-floor condo and just knew it was something I someday hoped to be a part of. I didn't care who won the thing.''

Earnhardt Jr. overcame a series of early problems to win. He was halfway down pit road for a stop during the first 30-lap segment when a caution came out on the track. He quickly drove off of pit lane to avoid falling a lap down during the yellow flag.

He later brushed against the wall in turn four during the second 30-lap segment and thought his night was over.

''I don't know why I hit the wall, it was my fault,'' he said. ''Then it got real tight and I thought to myself, 'We had a race winning car and now we don't.'''

It looked gloomy for him when the final segment -- a 10-lap shootout -- began and Jarrett took the lead away from Bill Elliott on the first lap and was pulling away from the field.

But Steve Park and Joe Nemechek collided on the second lap, bringing out another yellow flag. That's when Earnhardt Jr. persuaded his crew to give him four tires when much of the field wasn't even bothering to pit.

''I was a little nervous after we did it because if I didn't win Tony would have been mad,'' he said. ''But they listened and that's why I like Tony and them guys because they are gutsy.''

Terry Labonte finished sixth and Rusty Wallace was seventh. Elliott, the pole-sitter, finished eighth, but won both 30-lap segments to earn $100,000 in bonuses.

Crashes knocked some cars out of the race early.

Kenny Irwin and John Andretti bumped in turn four of the first lap. Because caution laps don't count and the wreck happened before the first lap was complete, the race started over again after Andretti's car was towed off the track.

Eight of the 20 cars didn't finish the race, including Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jeremy Mayfield.

Darrell Waltrip, retiring at the end of the season, got to say the customary ''Gentleman, start your engines,'' before the race. He finished 11th. He has raced in all 16 runnings of The Winston.

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