NASCAR evaluating weather policy

Updated: August 7, 2012, 10:59 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- NASCAR and Pocono Raceway officials are investigating whether there is a need for emergency reaction policy changes to weather-related events following Sunday's tragedy at the 2.5-mile track.

A 41-year-old man was killed and nine others were injured as a result of lightning strikes within minutes of the Sprint Cup race being called for severe weather.

The incident raised the question of whether the race should have been called earlier to give the track time to evacuate the stands and everyone enough time to reach the safety of their cars or shelter.

"We and the track are doing the same things, reviewing logs and everything that went on during the process," NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said on Monday. "We want to know as much as they do how the procedures went down.

"Any questions or concerns, any gaps, we'll definitely do a very thorough investigation. Any lessons learned, we'll apply practices for future events."

Higdon said NASCAR's attention to severe weather will be on "hyper alert" heading to this week's race at Watkins Glen.

"But I will add we're always in that situation," he said. "Nobody had their guard down (at Pocono)."

NASCAR doesn't have a hard and fast rule on how to react to severe weather. Higdon said that is left up to the individual tracks, and most don't have rules such as evacuating the track if lightning is within a certain radius of the facility.

"You've got be cautious in having hard and fast standards," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. "It could be within a prescribed number of miles but it's going the other way. It's hard to say.

"Evacuation I'm not sure is the right word, either. It enters an element of real danger in people's minds, sometimes resulting in a response from fans that can be more dangerous than the storm or situation your facing."

But in the wake of what happened at Pocono, Gossage met with his track operations director Monday morning to discuss emergency plans. So did Ed Clark at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jerry Caldwell at Bristol Motor Speedway and Clay Campbell at Martinsville Speedway.

Campbell also contacted officials at Watkins Glen "to make sure we had things in place for things such as this that could come up this week."

"As time goes on, we'll all look at what we have to do to make things better," Campbell said.

As NASCAR and Pocono officials investigate everything that possibly could have been done to prevent the tragedy, track operators are doing the same to assure there isn't a repeat.

NASCAR officials made it clear that the safety of the fans in these situations ultimately is the responsibility of the tracks.

"Anytime something like this happens you try to learn from it," Clark said. "I'm sure most tracks will try to do that."

The dilemma for tracks is they can have the best emergency plan, but the decision on when to stop the race is NASCAR's. As Ed Klima, the director of emergency services at Dover International Raceway, told the Associated Press, "it's very difficult to get people to leave if there's still cars going around the racetrack."

"I can see the argument on both sides," Clark said. "If you're NASCAR, you don't want to manipulate the outcome of the race. At the same time, no one wants to see people injured. It's probably a tough call. I agree (it is tough) getting people's 100 percent attention as long as cars are going around.

We're in the process of going through that exact process with the track in terms of how they dealt with things, how we dealt with things, how we worked together. We will do a very thorough evaluation of procedures that took place and protocol and see if any adjustments are warranted.

-- NASCAR spokesman David Higdon

"That's one I'm sure people are talking about and debating. If there's a better way of handling it, I'm sure it will come out moving forward."

The initial severe weather warning was issued to fans at Pocono at 4:12 p.m. NASCAR called the race and declared Jeff Gordon the winner at 4:54 p.m. The lightning strike that took the life of Brian F. Zimmerman of Moosic, Pa., while he was leaning against his car, took place at 5:01 p.m.

NASCAR declined to discuss the conversations that took place between the initial warning and the lightning strike. Pocono officials declined to give specifics of their emergency plan.

"We're in the process of going through that exact process with the track in terms of how they dealt with things, how we dealt with things, how we worked together," Higdon said.

"We will do a very thorough evaluation of procedures that took place and protocol and see if any adjustments are warranted."

Brian Neudorff, a meteorologist from Twin Falls, Idaho, who refers to himself as the unofficial meteorologist for NASCAR, would like to see the governing body adopt more stringent rules for severe weather.

"If lightning is eight to 10 mile away, clear the stands," he said. "If lighting is present, NASCAR should red flag the race. If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning.

"Obviously, fans would not be very appreciative of evacuating, especially if it's not raining at the time. But safety first."

Neudorff said there is no foolproof plan to prevent incidents like the one on Sunday, "but if there is a policy in place, more people have a chance to be safe."

"If lightning is in the area, even if just passing in an area, say, 'Hey, safety first. Stop things and resume when the storm is at a safe distance.' "

Neudorff said he was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two weeks ago when a thunderstorm passed during the Grand-Am race.

"I don't even remember there being an announcement," he said. "You could hear thunder, but they still ran."

Don Ash, the head of Henry County Emergency Services that works with Atlanta Motor Speedway on race weekends, estimated it would take 20 to 30 minutes to evacuate AMS.

Ash said his team wouldn't hesitate to recommend evacuation while cars were on the track if weather was perceived as dangerous.

Caldwell said Bristol Motor Speedway was evacuated during a Monster Truck event last year with lightning in the area, but he's never had to do that for a NASCAR event.

"We will discuss with NASCAR over the next week or so if there's a better way to do things," Caldwell said.

Gossage said he has four people with the national weather service on site at TMS, yet a man was hit by lightning at an IndyCar race at TMS about 10 years ago.

"We can only advise people," Gossage said. "We cannot lead them out. Every situation is going to be different. I don't know the answer. You can have a set plan, but what happens at Pocono might not happen in the same manner at Michigan."

NASCAR officials reiterated that the Pocono fatality occurred with the victim already out of the stands and at his car.

"That's what we're going through, figuring out if anything warrants a change," Higdon said. "We've had 60 years of doing this. These things happen, unfortunately.

"When they do, that makes us all look close at what we do."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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