Pocono reviews response to storm

Posted: August 10, 2012

AS THE POCONO Raceway staff sorts through the issues from the lightning strike that killed one fan and injured nine others last Sunday, two questions are at the forefront:

Did the raceway staff do all it could to alert the fans that a severe thunderstorm would be menacing the racetrack area?

Should NASCAR have stopped the race before the storm lashed the Long Pond area, giving fans more time to exit the grandstands?

Brian Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, died after he was struck by lightning as he and friends were sitting in a tent near their cars in the parking area behind the grandstands.

Brandon Igdalsky, Pocono's CEO and president, believes his staff did the right things in notifying fans. However, Igdalsky said his staff is analyzing the entire process.

"If we did everything right, then we'll be able to do things more right the next time," he said Wednesday. "We're not looking at it as, what did we do wrong? We're looking at, what did we do right and how can we improve it?"

On Monday, Igdalsky visited some fans who were hospitalized following the lightning strike. According to Igdalsky, "They said it was an accident. They said they were having a great day, then all of a sudden, ba-boom."

Reviewing Sunday's timeline: The track's Twitter feed posted a storm-warning message at 4:21 p.m. The race was red-flagged at 4:43 p.m. after 98 of the scheduled 160 laps were completed. Twelve minutes later, the race was ruled official. The first lightning strike occurred 6 minutes after that.

Since weather radar showed severe lightning within the storm, there is a sense that if NASCAR had halted the race sooner, more fans would have left the grandstands and been safe in their vehicles when the lightning hit. When race cars are still on the track, even during caution or red-flag situations, some fans will remain in their seats.

The "purchase agreement" on tickets says "the holder assumes all risk incident to the event prior, during and subsequent to the event." And buyers "agree all event participants, sanctioning bodies and raceway employees are released from any claims arising from the event."

Perhaps in the future, when severe weather is imminent, tracks should announce: "In the interest of everyone's safety, NASCAR is stopping the race. Hopefully when the storm is over we can resume racing."

NASCAR spokesman David Higdon indicated Monday that Pocono had offered adequate warnings about the storm.

"The track acted appropriately, and we are aligned with them," Higdon said. "They have a very substantial action plan that we review with them well in advance [of races]."

Normally when lightning looms, people are advised to find shelter. Four-walled buildings are considered safe. Also, sitting in a car with the windows rolled up is recommended because the rubber tires act as grounding. The problem at racetracks is that there are no concourses as there are in arenas and stadiums where people can wait out a storm.

Igdalsky said Pocono Raceway belongs to associations of arenas/ stadiums that are continually examining how to make events at their facilities more fan-friendly and safer.

"But there's not enough data on this kind of stuff because it doesn't happen that often," Igdalsky said. "This was a terrible tragic accident."

Speaking during Tuesday's tire test at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, Carl Edwards, runner-up in last year's Chase, said, "I know there's a lot of discussion about what NASCAR should have done or the track should have done, but at the end of the day, it's Mother Nature, and it's very difficult for anyone to take responsibility and say, ‘We should have done this or done that.'

“It's something that I would have never expected. I walked in the middle of that rainstorm and I ignorantly didn't think about the dangers that were there. I think we all maybe take that stuff a little too lightly."

Pocono Raceway has established a fund for Zimmerman and the fans who were injured. Igdalsky said the track is contributing to the fund. Donations may be made to: Pocono Raceway (attn. Pennsylvania 400 Memorial Fund), 1234 Long Pond Rd., Long Pond, Pa. 18334.

Contact Bill Fleischman at fleisc@phillynews.com.

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