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  • Andy Alfaro / Special to The Bee

    Josh Yandell of Yuba City holds his daughter Cassidy as he, his wife, Kylie, and their son Jayden and daughter Trinity cheer on a friend from their front-row seats at the finish line of Marysville Raceway Park.

  • Andy Alfaro / Special to The Bee

    Sprint cars start their race at Marysville Raceway Park, a quarter-mile dirt oval. "You have to love it," says track promoter Paul Hawes. "It's not a cash cow."

  • Andy Alfaro / Special to The Bee

    Dawn and Leonard McCutcheon of Yuba County enjoy the action, their dog Goober sharing their front-row seats. "There's nothing more exciting than dirt track racing," Leonard McCutcheon says. "Thrills and spills – that's what people come for."

  • Andy Alfaro / Special to The Bee

    James Jackson, 3, watches races at Marysville Raceway Park with his parents, Teresa Jackson and Ross Jackson of Lincoln. The Saturday night events draw mostly families, and the love of the sport is passed from generation to generation.

  • Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Racing fans like their thrills up close – too close?

Published: Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 1, 2013 - 11:51 am

Dawn and Leonard McCutcheon wouldn't be anywhere else than the front row when racing comes to Marysville.

They have been Saturday night regulars for going on eight years, drawn by the thrill of cars speeding 100 mph or more around the quarter-mile dirt track. Drivers obviously know the dangers. So do fans who want to get as close as they can to the smells and sounds of a sport they love.

"Any night, we could have a car land in our laps," says Leonard McCutcheon, 59.

"But the chances of that are very slim," Dawn, 54, quickly adds.

While there seem to be regulations for everything these days, there is remarkably little government oversight of fan safety at racetracks. It's almost entirely up to track owners and race promoters. After doing some research, I was thinking I would write that there needs to be someone else – maybe an official agency – looking out for spectators.

After talking to fans and watching races at Marysville Raceway Park last weekend, I'm not so sure. It was a rush to stand in the infield, mere feet away from cars skidding sideways just to make the turn. The biggest hazard for spectators seemed to be pellets of dirt flung by spinning tires through the 14-foot-high fence between them and the track.

Then again, safety measures always seem enough until tragedy strikes.

It happened on March 16 at Marysville. A half-dozen cars were doing warm-up laps for the first race of this year's California Sprint Car Civil War Series when one careened out of control at about 100 mph, rocketed into the narrow opening where cars exit the track, scraped across the top of a concrete wall and plowed into the pit area.

Dale Wondergem Jr., 68, a car owner, died at the scene. Marcus Johnson, 14, a cousin of the driver, was pronounced dead shortly after at a local hospital. Another 20 or so people scrambled out of the path of the car, which flipped on its side. The driver, Chase Johnson, 17, was unhurt.

Marcus wasn't part of a pit crew but was with his father, who had signed a waiver under a policy that allows children 14 and older in the participant area, according to track promoter Paul Hawes.

The Yuba County Sheriff's Office, which investigated the crash, was unable to confirm witness reports that the detachable steering wheel on the car came off just before the crash. It did conclude that there was no crime committed, that it was an accident, Undersheriff Jerry Read says.

In his pre-race instructions to drivers and their crews last weekend, Hawes reminded them in rather colorful language to pay attention and slow down coming into the pit area. Those gathered around included young drivers dreaming of becoming the next Jeff Gordon, as well as older drivers still competing for glory and $1,000 winner's checks.

In the half century the raceway has been open, only one driver has been killed, Merle Shepherd in 2010. No one in the spectator area has been seriously injured. Since taking over operations in 2007, Hawes says he has spent more than $400,000 on walls, fences and barriers, in part to improve safety.

Fan safety is an issue for all tracks – from mom-and-pop operations in rural hamlets like Marysville Raceway to speedways seen on TV like Sonoma Raceway.

There was a horrifying reminder on the final lap of a NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway in February. As the lead pack roared toward the finish line at 175 mph, a dozen cars wrecked. The car driven by Kyle Larson, a 20-year-old rookie from Elk Grove, went airborne and slammed into the steel fence guarding the grandstands. The front of the car sheared off, launching chunks of metal and one wheel through the fence and into the crowd.

Almost miraculously, no one was killed, though more than 30 fans were hurt.

In the aftermath, some asked again whether NASCAR, which has focused intently on driver safety since the shocking death of legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001, has done enough to protect its customers.

Sam Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, doesn't believe so. He is pushing NASCAR and major speedways to install fences that would extend out over most of the track to stop debris from going into the stands.

Many in the industry, however, say that there is no foolproof solution – and that many measures would cost so much they would put many tracks, already teetering after the recession, out of business.

A study by the Charlotte Observer found that at least 46 spectators died at races nationwide between 1990 and 2010. Compared to total race attendance, the risk is "astronomically small," says Kevin Forbes, engineering director at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Industry officials also say that building thicker fences or moving seats farther from the track would lessen the fan experience. "Auto racing is a spectator sport," Forbes told me. "If you provide the utmost level of safety imaginable, there would be nothing to see."

"It's a very tricky balance."

The trade-offs are even trickier at smaller, private tracks, where safety measures are less formal and where the line between making a profit or not is thinner.

Some tracks are part of higher-level racing associations or sanctioning bodies, which have safety requirements such as emergency crews, fences and vehicle inspections. Handy Racing Promotions, which puts on the California sprint car series, says it has nothing to do with operations at Marysville. The series is scheduled to return to Marysville on May 25, and also has four races at Placerville Speedway in El Dorado County starting June 1.

While there are state laws in Georgia and New Jersey, there are no state agencies with responsibility for racetrack safety in California. In Marysville's case, the track opened before any zoning regulations in the county, Yuba County officials say. So there's no permit that might include safety requirements.

The Sheriff's Office also looked into whether any agency is responsible for overseeing safety at the track. "Nobody has raised their hand to say, 'That's me,'" Read says.

Still, Gualardo says even small dirt tracks can take steps, such as tightly restricting how many people can be in pit areas. They can move fans farther back or eliminate seating in turns where crashes often occur.

"If they can't afford to protect their fans, they shouldn't be in business," he told me. "It's that simple."

Fans flocking to tracks like Marysville, where more racing was on the schedule last night, seem to take the risk in stride. It's part of the price of admission, besides the $12 for adults and $5 for kids.

Last weekend, Josh and Kylie Yandell of Yuba City, their three young children in tow, camped out at the finish line so they could cheer on drivers they know. Josh, 23, says it crosses his mind that something horrible could happen, but only moves his family higher up in the 1,570-seat grandstand if the drivers are being "crazy."

Hawes, a former driver, says there are going to be wrecks. The key is to be prepared, which he says he is with an emergency crew and 22 staff on duty on race nights. Last weekend, his son Jeremy's car rolled over after colliding with a competitor's and briefly caught fire. It was put out quickly, he restarted his car and finished the race.

"If there is no risk, why do it?" Hawes asks. "It's baseball if there's no risk. And I hate baseball."

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor

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