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Opinion: NASCAR, Racetracks Must Change Approach After Lightning Strike

NASCAR should change how it handles the threat of severe weather in the wake of Sunday's fatal lightning strike at Pocono Raceway.

Aug 5, 2012; Long Pond, PA, USA;   Race cars sit covered in pit row during a rain delay before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series  Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway.  Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
Aug 5, 2012; Long Pond, PA, USA; Race cars sit covered in pit row during a rain delay before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

First of all, the lightning strike that killed one fan and injured nine others on Sunday at Pocono Raceway is a tragedy no matter how it happened. It's possible the lightning could have occurred even without the severe thunderstorm warning that was in place for the track, but more must be done to protect fans when we know storms are coming in the future.

It starts from NASCAR all the way down to the track. Because people will stick around as long as cars are on the track, 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."

At that point, the track needs to come out and tell the fans, "We've got severe weather in the area. You need to either go to your car – and we'll let you back in later – or seek shelter underneath the stands."

Some people will say, "Hey, it's not NASCAR's problem or the track's problem. It's the responsibility of the fans to know if it looks bad, you should seek shelter." And there's some truth in that.

But not everybody knew the thunderstorms headed their way were severe. I would guess a majority of the fans in the stands didn't know the track was under a severe thunderstorm warning when it was issued. They may have known rain was coming, but they may not have know the severity of it. That's the real problem: You're not going to be able to know what's coming just by looking at the clouds, and it's the responsibility of the track to notify the fans.

NASCAR wouldn't have to call the race, but they could red-flag it due to "impending weather." Sure, it wouldn't be raining yet – and some people might question NASCAR's decision – but in a severe weather situation, that's a valid way of putting it. If NASCAR red-flags the race and then the track instructs fans to take shelter, then they've both done their part.

At that point, the fans become responsible for taking care of themselves and finding shelter. If some fans decide they're not listening or they're not going to heed the warnings, then that falls on them. It's their responsibility if they didn't seek shelter, because everything else was laid out for them up to that point.

I've seen this too many times with races, and it's even happened before at Pocono. A few years ago, a Pocono race started while there was a severe thunderstorm warning in effect for the track – and it really ticked me off. It's happened other places, too; technically, Indianapolis was guilty of the same thing during the Grand-Am race last week.

Fortunately, there haven't been any problems until now. But sometimes it seems the product on the track or putting on a good show is more important at the time than the potential dangers of the storm, and that's a risky game everyone has been playing.

Let's talk about the timeline on Sunday. At first, I was just tracking the rain. But when NASCAR was in the track-drying process after the initial rain delay – around 2:45 p.m. Eastern – the Storm Prediction Center issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the Pocono area.

There's a difference between a "watch" and a "warning." A watch means something could happen, but it doesn't mean it will; it's just kind of the first heads-up. It's not a reason to stop the race.

But a warning is different. A warning means something will happen, and the National Weather Service issued a warning for the track that came across at 4:12 p.m. That's when things got serious and indicated the safety of the fans – and everyone at the track – was at risk. These storms had a history of being strong with frequent lightning.

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."

"Get the fans under shelter now!!!!!!" he tweeted at 4:33 p.m. "Severe storms are literally there." But the red flag wasn't displayed until 4:43 p.m.

At 4:21 p.m., when the caution came out where Kurt Busch hit the wall – the one before Jimmie Johnson's wreck – that may have been a good time to say, "OK, the weather is getting bad. Let's get these cars in and let's get these fans to safety." And the ideal time would have even been before that.

These are obviously bad circumstances, but hopefully this is a learning situation for all tracks and NASCAR. Really, though, it starts with NASCAR. Could the track instruct fans to seek shelter while the race is still going on? That's a really tough position for a track if the action is still taking place. The track could do so from a liability standpoint, but if NASCAR isn't pulling the cars off the track, most people are going to hang around and watch.

There needs to be a universal procedure and plan in place. This is an outdoor sport, and severe weather is going to be a possibility. Here are two suggestions:

1) If a severe weather warning is issued, NASCAR needs to take action right then and there by red-flagging the race – not waiting until the rain hits the track. Severe weather doesn't have to come from the rain, it can come from wind – like at Kentucky or at the Indiana State Fair – and you're not going to see that on radar. If NASCAR had a policy in place where they said, "OK, there's a storm about 20 minutes out," then that's an adequate amount of time for everyone to get somewhere without panicking. You can get to a lot of places in 10 minutes.

2) All thunderstorms have lightning – both severe and non-severe storms. So even if there's no warning from the National Weather Service, NASCAR should throw a caution if lightning is spotted within 10 or 15 miles of the track. Many of my fellow meteorologists agree this kind of policy is needed. The NCAA has a similar radius for all of its college football games – they'll stop the game and clear the stands if lightning is nearby – and that's a good plan.

The worst-case scenario would be a pop-up storm that comes out of nowhere. And there's a legitimate concern that could happen. But most of the time, you see these storms coming.

In this particular situation, NASCAR and the track had plenty of time to make an effort to say, "This is bad. We should do something about that." Unfortunately, everyone waited too long.

Brian Neudorff is Chief Meteorologist for KMVT-TV in Twin Falls, Idaho. He tweets NASCAR weather forecasts under the name @NASCAR_WXMAN.

What should I do if I'm caught in severe weather at the track?

This is what I tell people when I go out and teach or speak to groups: If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning. But not everyone realizes that; according to the National Weather Service's lightning safety page, an average of 54 people are killed by lightning each year.

So what should you do if you're at a race and severe weather is in the area?

There's not a 100 percent safe area, but being in a car or in a concrete structure is going to be a lot safer than in a tent or sitting in the stands. And while being underneath the grandstands may not be the best option, it's better than being out in the open.

Sometimes, you just have to be where you have to be. Most of the metal stands are built on a concrete foundation, so they're grounded. A lot of the lightning would be dispersed. If you were down below the stands where the vendors are on the concrete, you'd probably be a lot safer than if you were right next to one of the metal railings or on the stands themselves, and definitely better than you'd be out in the wide open. – B.N.