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Questions linger for NASCAR following lightning death

LONG POND, Pa. – A long line of cars and campers streamed out of the tunnel at Pocono Raceway past a large American flag that hung at half-mast Monday.

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches. By Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches.

By Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches.

In the wake of the multiple lightning strikes after Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 that left a 41-year-old father of two dead and sent nine people to the hospital, many questions surfaced about how NASCAR and its tracks handle inclement weather and its impact on track activity.

Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark said his track hasn't had to evacuate its 99,000-seat grandstands during a race, but that it would be challenging.

"The tough part — I'm not casting any blame here — is as long as cars are going around (the) track a lot of people aren't going to pay attention to whatever you tell them," Clark told USA TODAY Sports. "That's the difficult thing is what do we do here if you're running the show. I'm not trying to do NASCAR's job. Our job is to manage the facility and take care of the people in the facility. Theirs is to run the race.

"Not knowing what occurred (Sunday), it's hard to make a comment other than the fact that some fans, if there's a car going around the track, they'll sit in a monsoon, and they're going to watch it. That's why we have the greatest fans in the world."

Clark said his 1.5-mile speedway has an emergency plan that is updated each year, and the track works with emergency officials from Henry County during races. An emergency management director is stationed in a control tower booth that is adjacent to NASCAR's control tower.

Clark said it's "hard to say" what would happen if the track decided during a race that there was the potential for unsafe conditions in its grandstands that might necessitate asking NASCAR for a stoppage.

"I've never been in that situation with them," Clark said. "I definitely would go talk to (NASCAR President) Mike Helton and say, 'Here's what we're being told and what to expect.' I'm sure his concern would be like mine, 'Let's take care of the folks that are here.' I'm sure (NASCAR has) some kind of procedure in place, I just don't know what it is because I'm not on that side of the fence."

NASCAR officials said they would comment Monday after Pocono Raceway officials held a 12:45 p.m. news conference to update the situation.

Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis said his track has senior staff members next to Helton and other NASCAR executives during the race.

"We've never been in that situation, but if we knew inclement weather is coming, we would talk to NASCAR," Curtis told USA TODAY Sports. "We're going to make a decision based on what's right for fans. We control the grandstands and campgrounds. (NASCAR) controls the on-track activity. Some fans are going to stick around no matter what if they think there's on-track activity.

"If that were to happen at Michigan, we would be in contact with them in the control tower and make a decision about the grandstands, but we would operate independently of (NASCAR) if need be. Hopefully that wouldn't need to happen, it would be simultaneous, but we're there together in the control tower."

Talladega Superspeedway canceled its Saturday activities in 2010 and Friday activities in 2011 because of tornado warnings. Track chairman Grand Lynch said "very few people left" among infield campers despite 17 consecutive hours of tornado warnings in 2010 and 11 straight hours in 2011.

"We send people out to tell fans, but getting them to leave is the hard part," Lynch told USA TODAY Sports. "It's their spot. It's where they like to camp. We even get officers out of the car and have them walk over and talk to them, and (the fans) give you, 'Oh, we've been flooded here before.' "

Lynch said the 2.66-mile track operates a weather command center on site during race weekends that has a staff of 40 including personnel from Talladega and NASCAR. Like Michigan and Atlanta, the track relies on its PA systems, social media networks and portable PA systems on police cars to help spread the word about inclement weather to fans. The tracks also use the SprintVision video boards to provide updates.

Daytona International Speedway has implemented a text messaging system this season to help alert fans with weather updates.

Daytona had a lightning strike on its property on its Sprint Cup race day on July 6, 2002, that sent six people to the hospital, and the track evacuated the grandstands prior to the Pepsi 400. Daytona President Joie Chitwood said there were no serious injuries.

The track also evacuated its grandstands during a practice day in July 2008 but hadn't done so during a race, though Chitwood indicated it would be possible.

"There's an unpredictability that makes it challenging based on the type of threat and where it's coming from and what you do afterward," Chitwood said. "Obviously, fan safety is paramount for us."

It's not uncommon for tracks to cancel and postpone track activity sometimes several hours or even days in advance of race weekends. In September 2003, Dover canceled practice and qualifying Friday two days early because of Hurricane Isabel moving through the East Coast.

Last year, Atlanta moved its race from Sunday night to Tuesday afternoon after a daylong forecast of severe weather for Monday.

"It was the right call for safety; the forecast was for rain and high winds, and we did have tornadoes in metro Atlanta," Clark said. "We'd do the same thing again, even though it upset a lot of fans. You have to make those tough decisions."

In a situation such as Sunday's, Clark said fans would be advised to go to their vehicles.

At Michigan, Curtis tells fans to go "where they think is appropriate. It depends, too, on the type of weather coming, as lightning is much different than tornado. People might be better served under the grandstands or certainly in their cars, if they can get to their cars."

Chitwood said Daytona would tell fans to seek immediate shelter or a place where they feel safe.

"The key is the fan goes to a place where they feel comfortable," he said. '"We don't provide a specific location."

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