Accident provides harsh reminder of racing dangers

Things can happen in a split second at a sporting venue.

A great play or move can leave fans amazed and thrilled.

However, there also is a risk of injury to both the participants and spectators alike.

Despite walls, netting or glass partitions, a foul ball or a broken bat can find its way into the stands at a baseball game or a hockey puck can deflect off a stick and into the seats.

Recently, injuries to drivers and fans attending motorsports events have brought safety at the events to the forefront.

On Aug. 10, while attending the races at Fonda Speedway, Dave Buanno, a former driver and member of the speedway’s Hall of Fame, was struck in the head by a tire that came off a car during the main event for the four-cylinder division. The loose tire bounced off a wall and over a 30-foot net before clearing another barrier 50 feet from the racing surface and striking Buanno.

He suffered a broken spine and was airlifted from the speedway to Albany Medical Center, where he remains in critical condition, paralyzed from the shoulders down.

“With what happened to Mr. Buanno, that is a fluke,” modified driver Bobby Varin said. “That normally doesn’t happen at a racetrack. Unfortunately once in a while a tire will come off a car. You can break a wheel bearing or have a spindle come off or even have loose lug nuts. It can happen, and unfortunately it does happen. The worst place to be is on the outside of the racetrack when that happens because centrifugal force carries everything out, not in.”

Varin has raced at several tracks along the East Coast and Canada and said the management at all the tracks do everything they can to keep the fans and drivers safe.

“You can get hurt in the grandstands at Fonda, Glen Ridge or almost any track,” he said. “It can happen. The race fan needs to be aware that things can happen even when you are just sitting in the grandstands. There is an assumed risk in going to a racetrack and there is an assumed risk in racing these cars. That is just the way it is.”

Harold Weaver has been attending the races at Fonda Speedway since 1956 and as a fan has seen the best and worst in racing.

“I really do think the tracks do everything they can to make it safe, I really do,” Weaver said. “You still have to be able to see. It would be tough for something to get here in the covered grandstand. It could happen but it would be a fluke like what happened last week in the pits.”

Mimi Lazzaro, daughter of Fonda Speedway legend Lou Lazzaro, grew up around the tracks and in the pits at tracks around the Northeast.

“When you go to any speedway you have to understand the risks,” she said. “Here at Fonda I think the fans are given the best available safety precautions. There are signs saying racing is risky but you cannot predict everything. There was the sprint car wreck in California early this year, and look what happened at Daytona in the Nationwide race. Accidents like that, unfortunately, happen.”

Varin pointed out that the pit areas can be extremely dangerous and not a place for young kids or non-race savvy people when the races are on.

“There is a lot of sharp sheet metal and with little kids playing or whatever, as innocent as it may seem, they could get hurt. Obviously tempers take over sometimes. Some drivers get that way and a fight might break out. You have hot exhaust, sharp sheet metal, drivers hurrying to get back out on the race track. Someone could be swinging a hammer trying to pound out some body damage. Their job is not to pay attention to people around them. They are asked to do their job as fast and as best as they can. Everyone else has to get out of their way. The pits are a very dangerous place to be, and the race fans should know that.”

The track safety crews also are aware of all the situations and respond to any emergency on the race track or in the stands during the program. When the helicopter needed a landing zone behind the pit area at Fonda Speedway, all the track’s safety vehicles responded with their safety lights on to mark a safe landing zone.

“The EMTs and safety crews at the tracks are the best,” Varin said. “They definitely know what they are doing and it may not be said, but the drivers know it.”

Despite the best efforts to protect fans, tragedy still strikes.

In May of 1955, a tire came off a modified in the first turn, bounced over the fence, hit a guide wire and hit three people, who were watching the races on ladders outside the racetrack, killing one.

There have been multiple injuries, some fatal, on the local tracks, with three on-track deaths in Fonda’s 61-year history.

“I believe that in many cases that most racetracks do enough, and Fonda Speedway makes an extremely good effort to protect the fans, the pit crews and everybody around from getting hurt,” he said. “I really believe that Mr. Buanno would tell you the same thing. He has been involved with racing and race cars for many years and knew what the risks were when he went to the track. And I guarantee, if he gets the opportunity to get back to a racetrack, he is going to go again. That is [people involved with racing] the breed that we are and it is what we want to do.”