A man was killed and nine others were injured Sunday during a violent thunderstorm that tore across Pocono Raceway in northeast Pennsylvania. Although track officials advised crowds to seeks shelter, NASCAR allowed cars to continue to race around the track far too long.
For days, the threat of severe weather in the Northeast U.S. had been advertised by the National Weather Service. The risk of severe thunderstorms was highlighted Friday, Saturday, and the day of race itself. A severe thunderstorm watch was put into effect at 3:40 p.m. and a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 4:12 p.m. - more than 45 minutes before Brian Zimmerman, of Moosic, Pa. was struck by lightning and killed.
According to USA Today, Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky said NASCAR made the call to stop the race at 4:54 p.m. - just a few minutes before the deadly bolt. That was too late. The race should’ve stopped as soon as the warning was issued.
Before the race was stopped, Meteorologist Brian Neudorff, who tweets NASCAR weather updates, was urging fans to get to safety and pleading with race officals to raise the red flag (to stop the race).
“I don’t get why the cars are still on the track rain/storm severe t’storm warning, lightning this isn’t smart #NASCAR @PoconoRaceway,” he tweeted at 4:42 p.m.
In his commentary on this tragedy at SB Nation, Neudorff noted his National Weather Service colleague felt similarly:
My friend John Keyes works for the National Weather Service, and he was among those who tweeted several times that NASCAR needed to stop the race. “If they don’t, (I’ll) be convinced they don’t pay attention to warnings and fan safety,” he tweeted at 4:28 p.m. “As a (meteorologist), I will be PO’d.”
An Associated Press (AP) report highlighted the quandary facing NASCAR officials when determining whether to let a race continue.
“Fans feel cheated if they don’t see a full race, and NASCAR’s first priority is usually to try to wait out a storm in order to complete all the scheduled laps,” the AP report said.
But unless the race stops, a contingent of the many diehard NASCAR fans may not act in their own best interest, one official said.
“[S]ome fans, if there’s a car going around the track, they’ll sit in a monsoon, and they’re going to watch it” Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark told USA Today.
Given this dynamic in which fans are stubborn to get out of harm’s way - it increases NASCAR’s duty to place fan safety above and beyond all other considerations.
As Neudorff put it -
It’s NASCAR’s responsibility to say, “We’re going to stop things right now because it looks bad. Lightning is a possibility, and the safety of our crews, our drivers, our personnel, our media and the fans is at stake.”
The event at the Pocono Raceway comes in the wake of other similar situations where officials in charge of an event failed to take charge and execute a plan when severe weather warnings were in place. Disaster either ensued or was narrowly averted.
Last August, 5 people died at the Indiana State Fair after a tent collapsed on fans at a concert when they were not evacuated in time. On April 22, 2011, the St. Louis airport was fortunate no one was killed when pilots and passengers were not warned about an incoming tornado. Warnings were in effect in both circumstances.
If the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning, it’s really very simple: operations should stop and public safety plans immediately activated - whether it’s a state fair, a sporting event or commercial aviation.
Note: Another person was killed by lightning today in Shell Island, Florida, the 20th lightning death of 2012. If it seems like that’s a high number - it’s not. 26 people were struck by lightning in 2011, the lowest number on record. We can thank improved weather forecasting and public safety campaigns about the dangers of lightning for a downward trend in lightning deaths. But we still have work to do.