Safety first: Teenager’s death has sanctioning body taking another look at safety

By Michael Marot, AP
Monday, August 30, 2010

Teen’s death has USGPRU reviewing safety measures

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S Grand Prix Racers Union said Monday that it plans to review its safety measures after the death of a 13-year-old motorcycle rider.

Chief steward Stewart Aitken-Cade said series officials will discuss what happened in Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and possible ways — including new age limits — to prevent fatalities in a sport where teenage competitors are the norm.

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 rider, 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 show him sitting on the track with his arms raised. A few moments later, Aitken-Cade and speedway officials both confirmed, 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 area some different schools of thought on that.”

Aitken-Cade did not say either rider was at fault. The speedway does have video of the accident but will not release it.

Track workers, Zayat and his family were all offered counseling at the speedway, and Aitken-Cade promised Monday to provide whatever help the families need.

The race series features some remarkably young riders.

The series requires riders to submit a resume with at least two years of racing experience and results. Aitken-Cade said the series must verify both the starts and the finishes before a rider can compete.

No riders younger than 12 are permitted to race on 125cc bikes, and that age limit jumps to 15 for the 250cc bikes.

“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.”

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 competing 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.”

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