Cause sought in race camera accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway

mwashburn@charlotteobserver.comMay 28, 2013 

An overhead camera cable that snapped during the Coca-Cola 600 had been in use less than a year and had been inspected by the contractor operating the TV rig when it was delivered in June 2012, Fox Sports said Monday as an investigation unfolded into the incident that injured at least 10 race fans.

In a statement, the network said the cause of the malfunction – the first of its kind at a major sporting event – was still unknown but that maintenance records and installation data were under review.

Seven of the 10 fans were treated and released with minor cuts and scrapes, according to track officials. Three were taken to the hospital but later released.

In lap 121 of Sunday’s night’s race, one of the three cables attached to a TV camera suspended over the start-finish stretch between Turns 4 and 1 fell and landed on the track and the bottom rows of spectators. Cars then snagged the cable, breaking it into smaller segments and spreading it along the mile-and-a-half oval before officials could halt the race.

Fox Sports said the cable, which is used to pull the camera along two guide wires at speeds up to 45 mph, was made of Dyneema, a synthetic with tensile strength approximating steel.

The cable had been factory-tested by the manufacturer before going in June 2012 to CAMCAT, the contractor operating the rig. Its breaking strength was certified at 9,300 pounds, Fox Sports said. During the race, the cable should not have encountered forces exceeding 900 pounds, according to the network.

“At this time, we still do not have a cause for what happened, but a full investigation is underway, and use of the camera is suspended indefinitely,” the Fox statement said.

Fans warned of danger

Witness accounts and amateur video taken in the stands show that when the cable fell, fans between Turns 4 and 1 began waving arms and shouting to race officials to warn oncoming drivers of the hazard. Some in the stands began to reel in the cable, hand-by-hand, to pull it off the track surface.

But seconds later, as the cars raced past, the cable apparently snagged in undercarriages, whipsawing parts of the cord back onto the track.

Todd Seymour of Lenoir was one of the fans observing the race near trackside of Turn 4. He felt the cord fall on his shoulder, then suffered a rope burn seconds later on his forearm.

“I picked it up, and it took back off,” he said.

Drivers taken by surprise

Drivers, accustomed to encountering car debris on the track, were taken aback by the felled cable.

“It was like getting attacked by a giant squid,” said Marcos Ambrose, whose No. 9 Ford was damaged by the rope. “It was just flapping, and I didn’t know what was going on.”

Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was also snared by the cable, which sliced into the body behind a tire.

Race-winner Kevin Harvick said he wasn’t prepared to see a TV cable dangling dangerously from above and wondered whether his vision was failing. “First time I drove by I said, my career is over … I saw this streak go by me. What … was that?” he recalled.

“I always have this thing with my eyes. It’s one of the biggest things we have as drivers. You got to believe in your eyes. I tell myself, ‘You got to believe what you saw.’

“I got to the start-finish line, I eased off the gas, I knew what I had seen the lap before, I was hoping it wasn’t my last race, I was hoping what I saw was right. I let off at the start-finish line, there was that black streak again.”

Concern voiced earlier

Driver Matt Kenseth already had misgivings about the overhead camera and said he had discussed it earlier with John Darby, director of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup.

“I remember seeing that camera for the first time … and I was like, ‘I hope that thing never falls down,’ and he said, ‘Nah, it will never fall,’ so yeah, that was kind of nuts.”

Kasey Kahne, who finished second behind Harvick, said the cord hit his car but didn’t seem to do any damage.

“I thought the cable was unbelievable,” said Kahne. “I came around Turn 4, saw it wrapped around Kyle’s car, hit mine. I thought I was seeing things, there’s no way there could be a cable on the race track.”

Cars were still hitting the cable on the next lap, Kahne said. “I was surprised there wasn’t a caution a little bit quicker when you have something like that hanging.”

Race halted by officials

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said race officials took action when they learned of the hazard.

“As soon as we realized the drive rope had dropped onto the track, we displayed the caution flag as we would have done for any other type of reason to bring the cars to a cautious pace,” he said. “We then started to determine the cause and how to correct.”

Track inspectors then reported that the rope may have damaged some cars, Tharp said, and officials sent the cars to pit row for examination.

“Our inspectors looked at all the cars as they sat on pit row and reported the different states of damage to the series director,” Tharp said. “Teams were then permitted to make the repairs.”

It was not the first time fans were injured at a race this season. In February, more than two dozen were hurt when a 12-car wreck on the last lap of the NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway tore a hole in a safety barrier. Debris, including a wheel, was flung into the front-stretch grandstand.

Investigation continues

Fox said the overhead camera system would not be used again until a technical review was completed, and results would be shared with NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR said Monday it would wait on the network’s findings.

“We’ll have full debrief with Fox this week to determine what happened and evaluate what’s best, safest moving forward,” said NASCAR spokesman Brett Jewkes.

Charlotte Motor Speedway had no comment on the handling of the incident on Monday.

Overhead cameras are commonly used during football games to track plays on the field. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Monday he knew of no history of malfunctions with such rigs. He said it was premature to comment on whether the league would look into its use of the camera based on what happened at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Device widely used

Fox Sports said the camera was provided by CAMCAT, an Austrian company that developed the device in 2000. It was first used in NASCAR coverage by NBC in 2000 at the race in Homestead, Fla.

It has been applied widely since then in telecasts ranging from the Olympics to the Vienna Philharmonic without serious incident. Officials from CAMCAT could not be reached for comment Monday.

Fox Sports used the device for the Daytona 500 in February and set it up before the Sprint all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for that event and Sunday’s 600.

Two towers outside the stands were the endpoints for the three 2,900-foot long cables suspended on the straightaway between Turns 4 and 1. Two cables support the wheeled runners for the camera buggy, and one in the middle is for the drive line that moves it. At the highest point, the cables are 140 feet above the track, dipping along its arc to a low of about 45 feet.

Fox Sports said that when the drive rope broke, the camera didn’t fall because the guide wires held it up, a safety function built into the system.

Staff writers Jim Utter, Joe Person, Rick Bonnell and Jonathan Jones contributed.

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