Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Weathering the storm in Pocono

The rain pours down during Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
at Pocono Raceway.
Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR

Sunny skies emerged at Pocono Raceway following the first rain delay during Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400, which moved driver introductions from the scheduled start time of 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. For those of us in the media center, it became apparent that the race would likely end at the halfway mark - the storm cell approaching was even worse than the first, bringing with it heavy rains that left the infield looking like a river.

NASCAR would eventually call the race with 98 laps completed and Jeff Gordon would be announced as the race winner. Upon calling off the race, Pocono Raceway made an announcement via their Twitter that warned of a severe thunderstorm capable of producing heavy winds and lightning approaching in 10 to 15 minutes. 

A 41-year-old fan, Brian Zimmerman of Moosic, Pa. died after being struck by lightning as he stood near his car in the parking lot behind the grandstands. Nine others were injured during the storm.

While weather updates are readily available inside the media center via computers and television broadcasts, even those sources could not fully describe the seriousness of the storm. 

The bolt that hit the grandstand parking area around 5 p.m. and struck Zimmerman could be clearly heard from inside the infield and seemed to eerily echo through the media center so much so that it made me jump in my seat. The severity of the storm quickly became apparent as news of the injuries began to surface. Just as us media members were likely aware of which bolt was the cause of chaos, so too were the drivers.

“I’m pretty sure I know which one it was,” said race winner Gordon of the deadly crack of lightning during a post-race press conference. “We were walking down pit road. The umbrellas weren’t doing any good. There was a huge, huge crack from lightening. That’s the thing that’s going to take away from the victory is the fact that somebody was affected by that.” 

The crowd of roughly 85,000 was advised of the storm over the track’s public address system and via social media and were encouraged to seek shelter as lightning and heavy rain approached the area.

Some fans have criticized the track saying that they didn’t hear a warning or that the warning came too late; however, Pocono officials warned fans about the weather while the cars were still out on the track. According to the Associated Press, they received a Twitter message from a fan who explained that the noise of the cars makes it hard to hear someone talking right next to you let alone any announcement made over a loudspeaker. 

While the debate over whether the track took the proper precautions to inform fans of the situation continues, another question also remains: should Sunday’s race have been postponed to the following day when track officials initially learned of the oncoming storm?

NASCAR representatives are well aware of the impact that weather can have on a race. A 2008 race at Richmond International Raceway was postponed the day before due to Tropical Storm Hanna. In 2011 Atlanta Motor Speedway was forced to push back the AdvoCare 500 two days due to weather. Earlier this year weather caused the season-opener Daytona 500 to be postponed for the first time in its 54-year history. 

NASCAR as well as the sport’s tracks and officials walk a fine line between giving fans what they came to see by waiting out a storm to complete all scheduled laps of a race and keeping their safety and the safety of the drivers and teams in mind and postponing the event. 

According to several reports, a severe storm warning was issued for the Pocono area at 4:12 p.m. and the race was officially called by NASCAR at 4:54 p.m. 

NASCAR spokesman Dave Higdon said that officials are reviewing the track’s emergency procedures and Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky said that the track is reviewing their logs and records to see exactly how many warnings were issued and when. 

The size of the tracks on the NASCAR circuit often presents a challenge for officials with fans sprawled out across several areas of the track including the grandstands and camping and tailgating areas located in the infield and along the perimeter of the track. 

According to Ed Kilma, director of emergency services at Dover International Speedway, “the facility is ultimately responsible for the fans’ safety…it’s obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there’s still cars going around the racetrack,” said Kilma. 

Kilma added that often times it is difficult for a call to be made to postpone a race when “the weather, in our case, a lot of times, breaks up, changes directions, what have you,” Kilma said. “People still have to take ownership of their actions. We can clear the grandstands, we can institute our severe weather plan, and then people can still choose not to follow it,” he added. 

Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup Champion reiterated the passion of the sport’s fans. “I mean, the fans here are so loyal and avid,” he said of Pocono Raceway spectators. “When we were going back to the garage area, there was a group of fans chanting up there that were not leaving. That’s just so unfortunate, because they’re so loyal and avid here, so you hate to hear something like that.” Not yet aware of Mr. Zimmerman’s passing, Gordon added, “Certainly our thoughts are with them. I hope everything is OK there.” 

As a reporter and media representative, it was my job on Sunday to write about Gordon’s much needed first win of the season. Gordon took home his sixth Pocono victory and put himself back in Chase contention by earning a chance at one of two Wild Card spots. Never did I think that I would be writing about the passing of a fan or as Igdalsky said “a member of our Pocono Raceway family.” 

Pocono Raceway has established the Pennsylvania 400 Memorial Fund to benefit the victims of Sunday’s lightning strike tragedy.

“The tragic event is at the forefront of all of our thoughts and prayers,” said Igdalsky in a recent statement on the track’s website. “We will learn from the incident and continue to implement strategies to help ensure the safety of fans and all attendees at future events at Pocono Raceway.” 

On Sunday evening, as I left the media center and the storm came to an end, the air was eerily calm, almost like the calm before a storm. The sound of revving engines was no longer and fans began to emerge and return to their normal activities. As I got closer to the infield camping area, I was quickly reminded of the day’s events – tents and shelters looked more like rubble strewn about the camping area, left behind by their owners who had left the track to return home. At the time, my dilapidated tent and drenched belongings seemed like the worst thing in the world, but little did I know that someone had lost their family member, their friend, their father, their loved one, and that we had lost a fan and member of our racing family.


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