LONG POND – This weekend’s NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway marks the first major event at the famed triangular track since a fan died and nine others were injured by multiple lightning strikes at the end of last August’s rain-shortened event.
Track and NASCAR officials at the time said they were launching an investigation into whether safety protocols were followed and ample warning was given to fans and crews about the impending dangerous weather.
A day after the Aug. 5 lightning strikes, Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky held a press conference as the flag at the track flew at half staff.
Igdalsky said: “The safety of all guests to Pocono Raceway is of the utmost importance to our entire staff. This tragic event is at the forefront of all of our thoughts and prayers. 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.”
Ten months after that declaration, no findings have been made public and it’s unclear what the track has done to ensure such a tragedy doesn’t happen again this weekend or at any future race.
An email sent to NASCAR’s spokesman Dave Higdon was not returned.
Bob Pleban, a Pocono Raceway spokesman, issued a statement to The Times Leader essentially reiterating that safety is the track’s and the series’ top priority.
“We constantly review and upgrade our safety procedures with local, state and federal authorities,” said Pleban. “We closely monitor the National Weather Service and are in direct contact with our local Emergency Management officials. Safety is a never-ending process of learning, preparing, training and adjusting. It is something we work on daily.”
“If an incident occurs, we review all aspects related to that incident and apply the findings to update our future policies, if needed,” Pleban added. “Pocono Raceway and NASCAR have the same priorities, the safety of fans, competitors and employees, and we work closely with NASCAR to achieve those goals.”
At the track on Friday, where heavy rain caused both practice and qualifying sessions to be canceled, Pleban said the statement will stand on its own and the raceway will have no further comment. When asked about whether an investigation was in fact undertaken and what the track found, Pleban repeated that the statement will be all the comment the track would be making regarding the incident.
The protocols that were in place last August are unclear and there were conflicting reports and information concerning announcements track officials said they made. The track posted warnings on its Twitter feed near the end of the race, which was ended with 98 of the scheduled 160 laps completed, encouraging fans to “seek shelter as severe lightning and heavy winds are in our area.” The crowd was also advised over public address systems. But some NASCAR fans that commented on the raceway’s Facebook page said they never heard any weather-related announcements on the PA system.
Brian Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, died as he stood near his car in the parking lot of Pocono Raceway.
“Unfortunately, a member of our raceway family here, a fan, has passed away,” Igdalsky told news media the night of the race as he held back tears.
According to track officials and the Monroe County coroner, one lightning bolt hit the grandstand parking area around 5 p.m., killing Zimmerman and injuring eight others. A second possible strike came around 6:35 p.m., sending a ninth person to the hospital with minor injuries, Igdalsky said that night.
When the first strike occurred, word quickly began circulating throughout the track that there were injuries near the grandstands. Emergency responders already at the track were dispatched and a passerby offered CPR on Zimmerman, but he died en route to Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg.
Fan: Use common sense
On Friday, race fan Melinda Davis, of Allentown, said as an attendee of any outdoor sporting event she understands the dangers that exist from the elements, wrecks on the track causing debris to enter the stands and even issues with unruly fans.
She wasn’t at last year’s race but said she can’t imagine the track could have done much more than it did.
“It’s common sense, if it’s raining and there’s thunder, you get indoors and you don’t touch metal,” said Davis.
“But getting 100,000 fans to follow common sense is easier said than done.”