Death of 13-year-old motorcycle racer prompts safety review, no ‘drastic’ changes planned

By Michael Marot, AP
Monday, August 30, 2010

Teen’s death prompts review of safety measures

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. Grand Prix Racers Union is promising a review of its motorcycle racing safety rules, conceding it will never be able to eliminate the dangers in a high-speed sport where teenage competitors are the norm.

One day after a 13-year-old rider was killed in Indianapolis, the union’s chief steward, Stewart Aitken-Cade, said series officials will review all safety measures, including new age limits.

A formal investigation, however, is not planned.

“I don’t believe there are grounds for anything drastic,” Aitken-Cade said in a phone interview. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to look at anything that we can do to prevent something like this from happening again. This is the first accident we’ve had like this in nine years, and that’s a tremendous safety record.”

Peter Lenz of Vancouver, Wash., died Sunday after he fell off his motorcycle during a warm-up lap and was run over by a 12-year-old rider from Flushing, N.Y. Lenz is the youngest driver or rider to be killed at the 101-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, series officials said, he was the first rider to be killed in their series.

Autopsy results released Monday confirmed Lenz died of multiple blunt force trauma.

The 12-year-old, Xavier Zayat, was not injured but did not race. Aitken-Cade said the boy and his family left the pits after the crash.

When Lenz fell off his bike, still photos showed him sitting on the track with his arms raised. A few moments later, Aitken-Cade and speedway officials both said, Lenz stood up and started waving his arms and that’s when Zayat hit him.

“You want to make yourself as visible as possible, and that’s when you hope the safety lessons kick in,” Aitken-Cade said. “Most racing schools teach that it is safer to stay down if there are bikes flying around, but there are some different schools of thought on that.”

Aitken-Cade did not say either rider was at fault and the owner of a California racing school that Lenz attended did not immediately return a message left seeking comment.

The speedway does have video of the accident but will not release it. Speedway spokesman Fred Nation said Lenz was being tended within 10 seconds of being struck, and the full emergency response team was on the scene within minutes.

Track workers, Zayat and his family were all offered counseling at the speedway, and Aitken-Cade promised again Monday to provide whatever help the two families need. Speedway officials are also working with the Lenz family to offer support, a spokesman said.

The race series features some remarkably young riders, and the youngest are required to submit a resume demonstrating at least two years of racing experience. Aitken-Cade said the series must verify both the starts and the finishes before a rider can compete. A senior rider also must watch new riders to make sure he or she can handle the bike.

Competitors younger than 12 are not permitted to race on 125cc bikes. The minimum age for the 250GP class is 15.

“Twelve, that’s as low as we’ll go on that — with the proven experience,” Aitken-Cade said. “We can’t just have a kid off the street that decides he wants to be the next MotoGP star to come in and race. We will not allow that.”

Asked if the series would consider raising those age limits, Aitken-Cade said: “We’ll look at all aspects of this.”

What can the series do to avoid a second fatality?

Aitken-Cade isn’t sure, but he’s willing to look at anything and everything.

“I just got off the phone with one of our safety suppliers and I said, ‘Is there anything we can do to make this safer?’ They said, ‘You’re doing everything you can,’” Aitken-Cade said. “We’ve had top professional racers come in and mentor these kids. We had a world champion in the pits Saturday talking them through what they can do on the track. Will it prevent accidents? I believe it will. Will it prevent it from ever happening again? No.”

The ages of the two boys involved in Sunday’s crash raised questions about whether riders who aren’t even old enough to obtain a driver’s license should be racing vehicles that can top 120 mph. Yet there is a long list of stars who were racing as young teens or preteens.

Three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves started in go-karts at age 14. IndyCar’s Danica Patrick started racing at age 10 and even left the U.S. to compete in Europe as a teen. Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon was driving Quarter Midgets at age 5, and two-time Cup winner Tony Stewart raced go-karts at age 7.

The motorcycle series seem an even younger arena.

Americans Nicky Hayden, the 2006 MotoGP world champ, and Ben Spies, the Indy MotoGP pole winner, each started racing at age 5.

“With youth sports, whether it’s football, basketball, soccer, water sports or whatever, there are injuries from time to time and there are fatalities from time to time,” speedway spokesman Fred Nation said. “But when you have them in an organized sport, in a controlled environment and safety people around, we think that’s a lot safer than having kids running around on four-wheelers through the woods. So we’re comfortable in supporting youth motorsports.”

All riders and parents of competitors under the age of 18 are required to sign waivers absolving the speedway of any responsibility for injuries or fatalities, Nation said. The speedway does provide medical insurance to competitors.

Aitken-Cade said waivers also must be filed with the league, too.

But as the racing community mourned the death of Lenz — the first fatality at the famed Brickyard since October 2003 — others were trying to console Zayat.

On Monday, his Facebook page was filled with posts like this: “Xavier, you don’t know most of the people on this page leaving you well wishes and love, but know this that not knowing any of us personally doesnt change the fact that we are here and we support you. The worst thing you could do at this moment in life is give up or feel some sort of regret. Use your talents and experience to move forward and live a life to be proud of. Stay strong.”

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