News & Media

Weather warnings scrutinized after fan's death

August 07, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Pocono Raceway, NASCAR reviewing timing, effectiveness of alerts

The huge American flag above the garage area at Pocono Raceway flew at half staff Monday morning following the deadly lightning storm that halted Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

Brian Zimmerman, a 41-year-old father of three from nearby Moosic, Pa., was killed when lightning struck the parking area beyond the Turn 3 grandstand.

Memorial fund

Pocono Raceway has established the Pennsylvania 400 Memorial Fund to benefit the victims of the lighting strike tragedy which occurred following the Sprint Cup Series race on Aug. 5. Donations will be accepted at any PNC Branch or by mailing checks/money orders, addressed to "Pennsylvania 400 Memorial Fund" to: Pocono Raceway Attn: Pennsylvania 400 Memorial Fund 1234 Long Pond Road Long Pond, PA 18334

Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky said Monday that eight other spectators were injured in that same strike, seven minutes after the race was called. Another fan was injured in a second lightning strike more than 90 minutes later. All were transported to area hospitals.

"We took it right in the teeth," said Dave Morrison of Rockaway, N.J., part of Air Pocono, a group of 30 Airstream trailer enthusiasts who weathered the storm in the Pocono infield. Monday, the infield was strewn with lightweight tent frames twisted by the storm.

"We were within earshot of that [deadly] incident," Morrison said. "We heard the poor security girl who was on the scene trying to get help for that person."

Pocono Raceway and NASCAR officials were reviewing logged data to determine what warning announcements were made, when they were made and how effective the track was in getting pertinent safety information to an estimated 85,000 fans.

"We are deeply saddened by yesterday's tragic events," Igdalsky said. "Our fans are like family to us, and we express our deepest condolences to the individuals and families involved, especially Mr. Zimmerman's."

David Higdon, NASCAR's managing director of integrated marking communications, said he thought Pocono Raceway "acted appropriately" but conceded that it's a delicate balancing act when action continues on the track, even as fans are being advised of an approaching storm.

In this case, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the Pocono Raceway area at 4:12 p.m., but the race was not called until 4:54 p.m.

"As far as the race is concerned, that is ultimately our call," Higdon said. "As for the facility and the fans, that ultimately is the responsibility of the promoter.

"Safety is our top top priority. We will certainly evaluate our procedures and certainly will look closely here to see if any adjustments are warranted. [Pocono] is doing a very thorough review of everything that went down. We're doing the same thing on our end. That involves interviewing people who were there and reviewing the process we went through in Race Control. "

Morrison said he wasn't immediately aware of the lightning when the first bolts hit.

"Honestly, we were too busy battening down hatches to even notice," he said. "But you certainly had a sense that lightning was coming in around us. [The storm] hit hard, came in fast ... [The track] assigns us a security guard who was receiving alerts. At one hour he said, 'It's coming hard.' At 30 minutes he said, 'It's still coming hard, so get ready for it.'"

In Air Pocono's case, the advance warnings made a difference.

"That gave us enough notice that we were able to pay attention to the storm," said Joe Fodor of South Bloomfield, N.J., one of approximately 60 Air Pocono campers. "After that, we went to our own cell phones and radars to check warnings. My wife stayed in the trailer with my nephew, who's 8, the whole time it was occurring. That way, I knew he was safe while we dropped tents to the ground and helped people roll up their awnings."

Warnings to seek shelter via social media and phone calls augmented the track in getting the word out.

Mike Cassarella and Ralph Caldwell of Hazleton, Pa., were in Turn 1 of the infield when the storm struck.

"We got a call from one of our buddies saying, 'You guys better take cover. There's some nasty stuff coming.'" Caldwell said.

"It was really, really windy and raining pretty good," Cassarella said. "Our canopy got twisted up. We saw some bolts of lightning, but where we were, in Turn 1, it didn't seem that bad."

Monroe County coroner Bob Allen told the Associated Press that Zimmerman was in or near his car when he was struck after the race ended 62 laps short of its scheduled conclusion. Allen said bystanders performed CPR until paramedics arrived on the scene and Zimmerman was transported to the track medical facility. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 6:11 p.m., about 77 minutes after the race ended.

Igdalsky said track medical personnel were with Zimmerman within three minutes of being notified. A second victim, originally listed in critical condition, had been upgraded to stable Monday, according to Igdalsky, who added that the track had established a fund for all the victims.

"Unfortunately, timing-wise, the lightning strike couldn't have been any worse because there were a massive amount of people leaving the area," Pocono Mountain Regional Police Chief Harry Lewis said. "Shelter is limited. I know a lot people -- even race car owners and drivers -- were calling people into their trailers."

Lewis said there is only so much a track and NASCAR can do.

"There are risks that people take to come to these events," he said. "You have to be accountable and responsible for your own well-being. We can only do so much to ensure your safety. You've got to be responsible enough to seek shelter yourself."

The review process will be lengthy, but the first lesson Igdalsky has learned is "Mother Nature's Sneaky. You don't know what she's going to do.

"You can make a plan, [but] even the individuals affected have spoken to the hospital folks and said it was just a freak incident, that they were having a great day, then boom, this happens to us."