The U.S. 500, the most prestigious race in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series, dissolves into tragedy on this day in 1998, when three fans are killed and six others wounded by flying debris from a car at Michigan Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.
CART (later known as Champ Car) was an open-wheel racing circuit created in the late 1970s by racing team owners frustrated with the direction of the existing United States Automobile Club (USAC). Open-wheel cars, built specifically for racing, are sophisticated vehicles built for speed, with small, open cockpits and wheels located outside the car’s main body. In CART races, as well as those of its rival open-wheel circuit, the Indy Racing League, drivers often achieved speeds of up to 230 mph in the straightaways. (In comparison, drivers in National Association for Stock Car Racing–better known as NASCAR–events reach some 200 mph.)
While rounding the fourth turn at Michigan Speedway (a two-mile oval) in the 1998 U.S. 500, driver Adrian Fernandez lost control of his car and crashed into one of the raceway’s retaining walls. The car broke apart, and the right front tire and part of the suspension flew over the 15-foot-high wall and into the stands. Traveling nearly 200 mph, the debris hit fans in the eighth and 10th rows. Two people were killed instantly; another died moments later, and six others received minor injuries. To the outrage of Sports Illustrated reporter Rick Reilly, who wrote a scathing editorial about the incident in the magazine, race officials didn’t stop the event, which was won by the young Canadian driver Greg Moore. (In a tragic twist of fate, Moore died in October 1999, after a fatal crash in the CART season finale, the Marlboro 500, in California.) In August 1998, Michigan Speedway announced that it would extend the protective fencing around all of its grandstand sections to a total of around 17 feet in an effort to prevent further accidents.
The CART circuit changed its name to Champ Car in 2004. Four years later, plagued by financial troubles, the Champ Car World Series declared bankruptcy and merged with the Indy Racing League.