Speedway Sorrow

By Chandler, Liz | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Speedway Sorrow

Chandler, Liz, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Team effort leads to insights on racing fatalities

The death of Russell Phillips was alarming. The 26-year-old youth church director was killed in a race for inexperienced racecar drivers. But it's what happened after the crash that stuck with our sports editor, Gary Schwab - and eventually prompted one of The Charlotte Observer's most significant investigations.

It was 1995. Phillips was leading the race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when another car veered into him, flipping his car on its side, and sending it scraping along the catch fence, shearing off the top.

Phillips' death was instant and obvious. Track workers hauled away his body, his car, and washed away his blood.

Then, 33 minutes later, the race was back on.

The callousness of that moment told Schwab something was wrong with racing, an insight that would begin to hit other newsrooms in the years to come. Around the country, sports racing deaths began to make front-page news again and again after even some of the "professionals" lost their lives on the track. Racing's inside story continues to be exposed as journalists uncover more on how the sport is run at all levels, and the true cost of high speeds and ineffective equipment.

Freak deal

We reported the news of Phillips' death and the poorly conceived race for inexperienced drivers. But Schwab remained unsettled. Monday wire briefs about weekend racing deaths across the country increased Schwab's discomfort: So many young men dying, leaving behind wives, children and lives of promise.

Stock car racing hails from The Observer's heartland. It's rooted in the Carolinas' red clay hills, where moonshiners once souped up cars to outrun deputies. It has grown into a huge industry with a Charlotte hub of racing teams, celebrity drivers and a renowned racetrack.

The dark side of racing was a story our newspaper needed to tell.

The story was a hard sell. Death was an expected - and accepted - result of racing at speeds topping 100 mph, some editors and reporters argued. To make it news, you had to answer a seemingly impossible question: How dangerous is racing?

In 1999, tragedy struck again at the Charlotte track: This time three fans were killed when a tire cleared the catch fence. Critics said the accident might have been avoided if Charlotte had raised its 15-foot-fence after a nearly identical wreck in 1998 killed fans at a Michigan speedway.

The moment suggested a chaotic sport that lacked safety standards and regulation.

Schwab lobbied for an investigation. How many drivers and fans die in racing? Could changes make the sport safer? Who's responsible for safety? How many deaths - if any - are acceptable in a sport?

Schwab persuaded me to "do a little checking" into racing safety. Immediately, it was clear that nobody knew how many people die in the sport - not organizers, not government, not insurance companies. So The Observer decided to count the deaths and see what conclusions could be drawn.

We started with our library manager Marion Paynter, who concocted elaborate search terms to scour databases for reports of racing deaths back to 1990. We brought in librarian Sara Klemmer to help compile as much information as possible about each death.

We used obvious - and odd - keywords in our computer searches. "Freak accident" and "freak deal" turned up stories in newspapers and on the Web. Repeatedly, we found new deaths by searching for "racing" and the cliched phrase: "He died doing what he loved."

Many newspapers barely mentioned on-track deaths in their racing coverage, sometimes only reporting low in a story that Saturday night's race "was marred by the death of" some particular racer.

Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 confirmed - and intensified - our efforts to chronicle racing deaths and the lack of attention to safety at many of America's 1,300 racetracks.

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