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Who's in charge?

Police challenge whether NASCAR can the draw line on crash investigations.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


Had police been notified sooner of the crash that killed NASCAR driver Kenny Irwin, Loudon, N.H., police chief Robert Fiske believes, his investigators might have an answer to what caused the accident July 7 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"I think there would be a good possibility, particularly because of the witnesses that we would have been able to gain," Fiske said.

"If they heard the acceleration, for instance, or saw something through the cockpit there," he said. "Any number of things. Even the tracks that were left on the track. Was it straight into the wall? Did he start to turn? God only knows. I haven't a clue."

Fiske's investigators have been frustrated from the outset by a two-hour delay from the time Irwin's car hit the Turn 3 wall about 11:30 a.m. to when someone at the infield hospital notified Fiske.

The investigation is expected to close Monday after the toxicology report is returned, but repercussions from a second driver death in eight weeks at the track and how the death was handled will continue for months.

"I'm going to have a meeting with (NASCAR chief operating officer Mike Helton) prior to next race to let him know exactly what the protocol is going to be at New Hampshire International Speedway," Fiske said. "It's going to be in writing."

But a point of debate is how involved authorities should be in a driver's death at a track.

What can a law enforcement agency with auto fatality experience limited to street and highway accidents know about high-tech race cars?

Why not leave the investigation to the racing series, which has at its disposal knowledgeable officials, crew members and drivers to determine the cause?

"It's a case where (Loudon police) became as involved as they chose to or not," New Hampshire State Police Maj. Mark Furlone said. "If they have the expertise to do a better investigation than NASCAR, I guess they'll step up to the plate next time."

But wouldn't NASCAR want an investigationby someone outside the racing business?

NASCAR isn't talking.

It is not talking about its relationship with local authorities at tracks it visits.

It is not talking about why Irwin's car was released to the race team and destroyed before Loudon's investigators finished their work.

It is not talking about whether, after 52 years of existence, it has a plan of action to coordinate with local authorities when a fatal accident occurs.

Repeated requests to interview Helton for this story were denied.

The Loudon police department was correct to investigate the Irwin crash even though the fatality occurred on private property and NASCAR had started its own investigation, said Chip Johnston, an expert in accident reconstruction and a retired member of the New Hampshire State Police.

"It's a vehicle crash," he said. "It would have to be investigated though it's a sporting event. The police would look at it to see there's no criminal intent, no negligence that would maybe be subject to being charged.

"Any time there's an untimely death, then the police would be involved. NASCAR obviously does (investigate) because they're concerned and they want to know why."

When CART driver Greg Moore was killed in a crash during the Marlboro 500 in October at the California Speedway, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department had no action plan.

But a sheriff was in the control tower with CART and track officials when the wreck occurred. They immediately conferred and created a plan.

"Together we chose the best course of action which seemed reasonable at the time," said Lt. Larry Brown of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department office in Fontana, Calif.

"We protected the car and everything without stopping the race to do the investigation. We can certainly do the skid marks, and we can determine particular issues about speed and that type of thing. Those are also things that can certainly be done after the race."

After Moore's crash and the race's completion, an on-duty sheriff was stationed outside the garage where the car was kept. It was released to CART 24 hours later.

"We don't have the expertise to go checking into the cause of the cars we're talking about and the speeds and everything that goes on during the racing and the crash," Brown said. "I do believe, after the race, we went to the general location and took photographs, skids were measured, and that stuff was passed along to CART. Pending any obvious signs of foul play, that's basically our part."

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department sat down after the race weekend and established a procedure to follow if anything similar occurs again.

CART has a plan and has contact with authorities at every track, series spokesman Mike Zizzo said.

An off-duty New Hampshire state trooper notified Fiske of Irwin's accident two hours after the impact.

New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre and Furlone, of the state police, dispute the two-hour time frame but were unable to provide a specific time police were notified.

"I take issue with the two hours," Furlone said. "(Fiske) may not have been notified for two hours, but that's on their side of the house."

None of Loudon's nine officers were in the infield or pit area when the accident occurred. Fiske was at a police substation, and his officers were outside the track helping with crowd control and patroling the town.

Inside the track were off-duty state troopers and Merrimack County sheriff's deputies providing security, said Loudon's lead investigator, John Katsirebas. But neither agency has jurisdiction at the track.

After Irwin's accident, Loudon police were unable to do on-scene investigating.

Thirty minutes after the crash and 15 minutes after Irwin was taken to the infield care center, the wreckage had been cleaned up and practice re-started.

Bahre said he didn't know the police had to investigate a fatal crash at the track.

"It's on private property anyway," Bahre said. "I think every state, everything has something different. I personally didn't know that the local police had to investigate it because nothing was said after the Adam Petty one."

Petty died May 12 during practice for a Busch Grand National series race. Both crashes occurred in Turn 3.

Fiske said he had "indicated briefly" after the Petty crash that police needed to be notified of that type of accident.

"Apparently, that failed," he said, "so now I want a meeting one-on-one with Mr. Helton."

Fiske said his investigators would have treated the Irwin crash like any other.

"We would secure the entire area of this fatality," Fiske said. "We would take the intricate measures, and so forth, photographs, pictures, so that in the future we could reconstruct the accident if we had to, if questions remained unanswered."

Katsirebas was handed the case at 3:30 p.m. and met with NASCAR officials Kevin Triplett and Gary Nelson at 5:30 to go over the car, which had been placed in a garage.

A stuck accelerator is believed to be the cause of the accident, but no official ruling has been made.

"The track is just as smooth as silk," Bahre said. "There's not a bump in that track anywhere."

The car was kept inside the garage, supervised by a track employee, until it was released to the team Sunday, Bahre said.

Fiske and Katsirebas would have liked the car to remain in Loudon for the police investigation.

Team SABCO, which owns the car, hired American Towing of Manchester, N.H., to tow the car to North Carolina, where it was shredded the week after the crash, said Pat Goley, co-owner of the towing company.

"In the future, that will not happen," Fiske said. "It will not leave until we're satisfied with the total investigation ourselves before we allow that to go."

The Irwin accident prompted Fiske to meet with Bahre two weeks ago.

"The main focus was to go over the protocol," Fiske said. "I said, "We have to come to a general consensus here, and we do need to get notified of this.' He said, "I understand, and it will happen in the future, and we will set up a meeting with Mr. Helton.' "

When the Winston Cup series returns to the 1.058-mile track for the New Hampshire 300 on Sept. 17, Fiske said, he will have no problem putting officers in the infield.

"We're frustrated because we didn't know who all the key witnesses were, and now we have to chase them one by one by one," Fiske said. "It's time-consuming, and it is frustrating. But it's a job that has to be done, and, obviously, we're going to do it."

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