Drivers, fans continue to face race-related deaths

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

George Turbyfell was a weekend warrior at one of the many Saturday-night short tracks across the country.

He dreamed about living in the fast lane. Then one night at a mosquito-infested bullring in Barberville, Fla., he died in the fast lane.

His car roared through the fourth turn, then wildly veered into the outside wall. The screaming engine suggested his throttle was stuck wide open, turning his weekend hobby horse into a death trap. The impact apparently snapped his neck.

Rescue workers pulled his lifeless body from the car and administered cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. As they put Turby-fell in the back of a hospital helicopter, his wife and two children stood huddled 15 feet away. Minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Death at the racetrack never is easy. Whether it's a star on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series or a father of two at a short track, each fatal accident chips away at the consciousness of those who follow the circuits until all that's left is a numbness that never goes away.

Turbyfell was hard to accept. So were the deaths of Terry Schoonover, Ricky Knott, Joe Booher, Clifford Allison, Rod-ney Orr, Neil Bonnett, J.D. McDuffie, Jim Fitzgerald, Grant Adcox, Slick Johnson and Bruce Jacobi. Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were racers who died flying to a racetrack, and Al Holbertand was killed flying home from a race.

Each death stirred memories of previous loss. Pain developed into an emptiness, then emptiness developed into a numbness. For years, the racing circuit has been different. The losses don't seem to hurt as bad, but the wins don't seem as special, either.

Adam Petty's death May 12 and Kenny Irwin's death Friday in the same third turn at the New Hampshire Inter-national Speedway only pushed those close to the sport a little further over the edge.

NASCAR said it found no evidence of mechanical failure on Petty's car after it slammed at full speed into the third turn wall. Of course, the impact was great enough to free the stuck throttle that witnesses said caused the accident.

Witnesses who saw Irwin's car crash said his throttle also was stuck wide open.

Track officials and the sanctioning body went into their defense modes immediately after the crash. Both said the problem wasn't the track. Admitting the design of the third turn might have been a factor in the fatal crash would be admitting responsibility.

Some drivers are calling for styrofoam walls at racetracks that feature little banking New Hampshire has a slight 12-degree corner and sharp turns. New Hampshire owner Bob Bahre said that would only cause bigger problems because the styrofoam would break into pieces at impact, which is what it's supposed to do. By breaking into pieces, it absorbs a lot of the impact. Other drivers are considering a toe strap on the accelerator so they can lift the gas pedal off the floor if it gets stuck.

If two people died in the same manner and at the same place in any other sport, the government would be calling for an official investigation. In racing, they sweep up the mess and get back to business.

''I can't speculate on what-ifs,'' NASCAR chief operating officer Mike Helton told The Associated Press. ''It's not fair to point a finger at race tracks.''

More lawyer talk. Push responsibility onto somebody else.

Meanwhile the race goes on. Along with the memories of George Turbyfell and the numbness that's followed 15 years later.

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