|Venue||Charlotte Motor Speedway|
|Corporate sponsor||VisionAire HVAC|
|First INDYCAR race||1997|
|Distance||502.115 km (312.000 mi)|
|Previous names||VisionAire 500 (1997)|
The VisionAire 500K was an Indy Racing League race held at Charlotte Motor Speedway from 1997 to 1999. During the 1999 event, three spectators were killed when debris from a crash on the track went into the grandstands. The race was stopped and canceled, and the event was removed from the Indy Racing League schedule.
The first open wheel race was at the first Charlotte Speedway built in Pineville in 1924. This is where indy races were held.
In 1980, USAC announced plans for a 500 km event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first Indy car event at the facility. The plans, however, were scrapped when USAC entered into a joint sanctioning effort with CART, and the 1980 calendar was reorganized.
Indy Racing League
In 1996, the upstart Indy Racing League tested at the facility, with plans to add it to the schedule in 1997. The first test saw speeds in the 207 mph range, already an unofficial track record. Soon after the test, a night race was added to the IRL schedule starting in 1997.
The first two runnings were considered largely successful with Buddy Lazier and Kenny Bräck winning the mid-summer Saturday night 500 kilometer (208 lap) races. Crowds were strong, and CBS carried the race on tape delay. At the time, the IRL was attempting to expand its schedule geographically, particularly in traditional "NASCAR Country." The initial success of the event was seen as opportunity to expand the league's presence in the South, and also validated that the IRL machines were suited for the fast, high-banked "Intermediate" oval tracks.
1999 fatal accident
In 1999, the race was moved from July to the first weekend in May, the last race before the Indianapolis 500. With crowds estimated at 50,000, the track opened extra sections of track to accommodate the additional spectators. As reported on the radio broadcast, sections of Turn 1 and Turn 4, and the first eight rows of all open grandstands were closed to spectators for safety reasons. At 8:50 p.m., during lap 61 of the race, Stan Wattles suffered a suspension failure that shot his car into the wall, shearing both right wheels off the car. John Paul, Jr.'s car subsequently hit the debris field and the contact sent Wattles' right rear wheel and tire assembly over the catch fence. Three spectators in the vicinity of the section which had been opened for the overflow crowd were killed by the flying tire debris. Scott Harrington spun to miss the debris field and the accident is often described as a 3-car crash, however, Harrington's car made no contact with the wall or other cars and was undamaged.
Buddy Lazier was leading the race at the time of the caution. He pitted a few laps later to change tires because of a puncture, at which point Greg Ray took over the lead. The gravity of the situation in the grandstands soon became clear, and on lap 79 after 25 minutes under yellow, race officials brought out the red flag. The race's cancellation was soon declared by Humpy Wheeler, the Charlotte Motor Speedway President and General Manager.
|“||We've made the decision due to the fact of the terrible accident up in the 4th turn and the debris that went in the grandstand, that we'll not continue the race. The race is cancelled as of right now, and we ask everybody for their patience here in the grandstands in leaving the speedway, and we ask prayers for those that are injured. It's a terrible thing that we had to call the race, we've never had to do this before, but in respect to those people I think it was the thing to do...||”|
|— Humpy Wheeler, Charlotte Motor Speedway President and General Manager|
Since the race had not reached half distance (which would make it official) the 1999 VisionAire 500k was officially listed as cancelled, and all statistics were scratched from official record. Spectators were offered ticket refunds, and participants were reimbursed entry fees and selected travel costs. The league does not recognize the race in its historical archives, and omitted the event in its count for the 100th race celebration in 2004. That incident, and a previous incident in July 1998 in a Champ Car race at Michigan which also killed three spectators, led to new rules requiring cars to have tethers attached to wheel hubs in an effort to prevent such incidents from happening again. New catch fencing was also invented, curved so debris could not sail as easily into the grandstands.
Two weeks after the incident, a controversy boiled at the 1999 Indianapolis 500 after Sports Illustrated published an article by Ed Hinton, entitled "Fatal Attractions: More fan deaths put the focus on the need for safety innovations" in its May 10 issue. The article discussed the tragedy and proposed safety improvements discussed in its aftermath. The magazine's editors in New York published the article accompanied by an AP photograph taken at the scene. The photo featured a security guard standing next to two dead bodies in the grandstands covered with bloody sheets, and blood covering the steps. The photo drew the ire of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, and they pulled Hinton's credentials for the 1999 Indy 500. After a few days, the credentials were restored, when it was determined that Hinton was unaware of the photo published along with his article, and when free speech/censorship issues were raised.
Later in the year, a short series of bombings took place in Lowe's stores in North Carolina, injuring three, and prompting some to think there may be a link with a relative of one of the victims. When George Rocha was arrested for the bombings, he claimed that he was angry about the crash at the speedway, but he later confessed that it was retribution for being caught shoplifting and an attempt at extortion.
|Season||Date||Driver||Team||Chassis||Engine||Race Distance||Race Time||Average Speed
|USAC Championship Car history|
|1980||September 28||Event cancelled|
|Indy Racing League history|
|1996–97||July 26, 1997||Buddy Lazier||Hemelgarn Racing||Dallara||Oldsmobile||208||312 (502.115)||1:55:29||162.096||Report|
|1998||July 25||Kenny Bräck||A.J. Foyt Enterprises||Dallara||Oldsmobile||208||312 (502.115)||1:58:11||158.408||Report|
|1999||May 1||Race abandoned after 79 laps (spectators killed)||Report|
- Miller, Robin (December 27, 1979). "USAC Announces 1980 Schedule". The Indianapolis Star. p. 31. Retrieved June 29, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Macenka, Joe (1996-09-26). "Optimism Flows After IRL Test At Charlotte". AP. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
- "Tragedy at the track". CNN Sports Illustrated. 1999-08-16. Retrieved 2012-12-21.
- "IRL: Preliminary Charlotte Crash Details Outlined". The Auto Channel. May 15, 1999. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved September 27, 2011.
- Hinton, Ed (2010-06-03). "Divide widens while fatalities mount". ESPN.com. Retrieved 2012-01-05.
- Hinton, Ed (1999-05-10). "Fatal Attractions". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2012-01-05.
- Hinton, Ed (1999-05-10). "Inside Motor Sports". SI.com. Retrieved 2017-10-31.
- Sports Illustrated. 90 (19 ed.). 1999-05-10. p. 86.
- Moxley, Jennifer (November 16, 1999). "Agents tracked bomb suspect via internet". Salsbury Post. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved September 27, 2011.