Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let's all learn from "Death at the Track"

Care to guess who documents deaths in auto racing across America?

Not the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Not the National Transportation Safety Board. Not even the International Council for Motorsport Safety.

Only the staff of the Charlotte Observer works each year to establish how many people die at auto racing events – both drivers and fans.

The Observer has been doing this for 10 years. And here is why it matters.

A decade ago, this in-depth reporting opened the eyes of the racing world to a wider concern for safety even as it mourned the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, it turned out, was one of at least 260 people who had died in U.S. auto racing between 1990 and 2001. That included 29 spectators, among them, five children.

The statistics shocked racing insiders.

"That is not acceptable," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, then president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. "This is something the industry has to deal with. We have a moral obligation."

Said Indy racing champion Mario Andretti: "Now maybe we should spend even more time and energy in making cars safer."

Because we still count the deaths, we are also able to report some good news today in a Page 1 story.

Since Earnhardt’s death, no drivers or spectators have died in NASCAR’s three National series – Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World truck. That compares to 10 deaths in the decade prior to Earnhardt’s death.

Clearly, NASCAR has become more proactive about safety. The statistics show it.

Those numbers also illustrate the value of journalists who are committed to looking out for their communities.

One of them has been our sports editor, Gary Schwab.

For years, Schwab was haunted by a tragedy at a 1995 race in Charlotte that was designed to give relatively new drivers experience on a big track. A driver died, the track was cleaned up and the race was restarted in 33 minutes.

"That moment stayed with me," Schwab recalled. "It just didn’t seem to be the right response to a tragedy of that magnitude."

Schwab eventually teamed up with another Observer journalist, Liz Chandler. The two of them began searching for random reports of other deaths. Gradually, they documented 20, then 40, then 60.

By the time Earnhardt died, our journalists knew there was an important story to tell. The Observer committed a team of more than 30 people. They documented the 260 deaths over 11 years. More important, they discovered how many of those deaths might have been prevented.

You have to pause to imagine what this team faced. There was no clearinghouse for statistics like this. No report you could request. To complicate things, media often gave little notice to on-track deaths. Wasn’t that to be expected in the world of racing?

Our library manager, Marion Paynter, used resourceful search terms to track down reports of deaths in various databases. Combinations like "racing," "freak accident" and "he died doing what he loved."

Our computer-assisted reporting expert, Ted Mellnik, created our own database to organize what we found. Reporters collected as many of 18 pieces of information about each fatality.

A lot has happened since we published that initial report, called "Death at the Track." As you’ll read today, head-and-neck restraints are now required at racing’s top levels. NASCAR tracks are outfitted with energy-absorbing walls. And drivers race in newer, safer cars.

Meanwhile, we keep counting. Thanks to technology and experience, our searches are now more sophisticated. And each time we find another death, it is entered into our database.

"The death count is probably still low," Schwab said. "Deaths at small tracks often don’t get much attention. But in doing searches over the past 10 years, we haven’t found any list on U.S. deaths that is as complete as this one."

In fact, a major safety equipment manufacturer recently asked permission to use the database for its research. We’ll go one better. In hopes that it will add to everyone’s understanding of this issue, we’ve posted the updated database at and its sister site, It is searchable for data on 474 deaths in racing since 1990.

On Friday, we will report on a new concern emerging from those numbers. Deaths continue at an alarming rate at small tracks across the country even as safety has improved at the top levels of racing.

"That number is striking," said Peter St. Onge, one of the journalists on the story. "The number of deaths has actually increased."

People interviewed say they hope the safety improvements at NASCAR will eventually trickle down to these smaller tracks.

We hope they are right. And we’ll keep watching.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001