HD29 - Spectator Safety at Certain Mud Racing Competitions

Executive Summary:
1. On May 6, 1995, at the Bodatious Motor Sports Park in Cumberland County, a custom-built car racing on a mud drag strip crashed into a spectator area. As a result of this crash, which killed three people and injured six others, the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates agreed upon House Joint Resolution Number 87 on March 6th and 7th, 1996, respectively.

2. House Joint Resolution Number 87 requested Virginia Commonwealth University's TSTC to study spectator safety at certain racing competitions. Specifically named in the resolution were vehicles referred to as "monster cars" and "mud dragsters." The resolution also read that the Center shall consider whether some form of regulation of these events and facilities is in the interest of reducing the risk of injury to spectators.

3. Based on the findings surrounding the fatal crash in Cumberland County, it was determined that the dragster's left rear tire became partially separated from its wheel while it was accelerating during a timed event. As a result of unequal acceleration forces exerted upon the rear wheels, the dragster became unstable and headed toward the guardrail which separates the mud track race lane from a spectator area. At speeds approaching 100 mph (and within only three seconds), the dragster became airborne, vaulted the railing, crashed through a metal fence and landed inside the spectator area. As it bounced through this area, it struck several spectators and parked vehicles before coming to rest.

4. At present, the Commonwealth has no safety requirements or liability insurance mandates that govern the safety of spectators or participants at these types of events. There are, however, safety guidelines established and used by the race track's sanctioning body, the track itself and/or the insurance companies which cover these events.

5. Due to the fluctuation in popularity of these types of events in Virginia, the number of organized races vary, but generally there are about a dozen annually. It appears that mud racing (also known as mud drags, mud slings, and mud bogs) has evolved from drag strips to sand drags and then to mud drags. The dragsters used are, in general, highly sophisticated vehicles which are specially designed for rapid acceleration over this type of terrain.

6. There are a number of sanctioning bodies involved with mud racing which have established safety guidelines for the vehicles, track, and spectator areas. These guidelines, which have evolved over the years from other forms of motor sports racing, are typically used at events such as Bodatious. Most spectator safety guidelines include the use of barriers and/or fences separating spectators from the racing vehicles, the positioning of spectators away from the starting line and shut down areas, and keeping spectators at a required distance of about 30 feet from the track during racing events. Not all mud racing events are sanctioned.

7. Since mud racing is a highly specialized sport and not widely practiced when compared to typical drag racing or oval track racing, only a few insurance companies offer liability coverage for these events. Of those doing business in Virginia, all require that the scheduled mud racing competition meet minimum safety guidelines -- similar to the typical mud racing organization requirements -- enhancing participant and spectator safety. As can best be determined, on the date of the fatal crash at Bodatious, the mud race track facility met or exceeded the minimum safety guidelines established by its sanctioning racing body and its insurance carrier. While there is no requirement that these race tracks carry insurance, the five race track officials interviewed for this report indicated their tracks were insured.

8. As with any motor sports racing competition, certain risks and dangers to the participants and spectators are realized. According to the insurance carriers, mud racing participants, and racing enthusiasts, a mishap such as the one which occurred at the Bodatious track is a "freak occurrence". Nationally, according to insurance claim adjusters, such incidents are extremely infrequent. As can best be determined, no other such mishap has ever occurred in Virginia involving a mud dragster.

9. On the day after the fatal crash at Bodatious, before the event's second day of racing competition began, several improvements were made by park officials. The spectator area on the south side of the mud strip (where the dragster entered the spectator area) was closed off and prohibited for pedestrians and vehicles. Additional improvements to further separate and protect spectators at this racing facility included the placement of a barrier consisting of large "earth mover" equipment tires (in addition to the existing guardrail barrier and fence line) to separate the drag strip from the spectators on the north side of the facility. To create a more protective barrier between the spectators and dragsters, the already existing hillside was cut to create a near 90 degree, 15 foot high cliff, minimizing any chance that the dragsters could enter the north side spectator area.

10. At present, most of the mud racing events in Virginia are sanctioned by one of several mud racing organizations or associations. Different sanctioning bodies may have different racing guidelines and standards for spectator locations. It is up to the event promoter to use whichever sanctioning body he chooses, or he may choose not to use a sanctioning body at all. Additionally, under present Virginia State Corporation Commission policy, these mud racing events are not required to be insured or licensed. It appears that the decision of whether or not to require insurance coverage and/or a special permit of operation rests with each individual county or locality where such events are staged.

11. The State of New Jersey has the most stringent state-sanctioned guidelines for mud racing competition (as well as other forms of motor racing). The many requirements set forth in the New Jersey Code include licensing and insurance regulations, building inspection forms, monthly race track reports, auto racing accident report forms, and numerous guidelines specific to the vehicle, driver, facility and spectator safety areas. Although the Commonwealth of Virginia does not by statute have any of these requirements, the five race tracks reviewed for this report comply with all or nearly all of these guidelines.

12. It would certainly be possible to further increase the safety of spectators by moving them further back than the prescribed distances or having stronger, higher and more substantial barriers and/or fencing separating them from the event. Such attempts may be cost prohibitive to the promoter and spectator and may diminish the appeal to these types of racing enthusiasts. Given the rarity of such tragic events, it should be considered that existing safety requirements -- if complied with as outlined by the various mud racing sanctioning bodies and/or insurance companies -- may be adequate and reasonable. Any regulations or safety enhancements should be designed, engineered, and constructed by the industry (e.g. mud racing sanctioning bodies, promoters and insurance carriers). See Appendix for spectator safety guidelines.