Short Track Tragedy

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Part-time racers and their families got a bit of a shock last weekend when a driver at Wall Township Speedway was killed.

A week ago today, Michael DeSantis died while driving in the final event of the night, a Legends race. Police investigators, track officials and the manufacturer of the car examined the vehicle and the crash site this week and preliminary findings suggest DeSantis' car had a brake problem.

Car problems notwithstanding, what's scary for some about DeSantis' crash, is that the Legends cars are generally considered safe. Before DeSantis' death there had never been another fatality in a Legends car.

Therein lies the rub. The size, the speed and the look of the Legends cars, almost suggest the series is a way for part-timers to get in, not
spend a lot of money, and race safely.

That was clearly not the cast last weekend.

DeSantis, 53, died of a blunt force head trauma when his car smashed into the outside wall on the eighth lap of a 20-lap feature. It was the first death of a competitor, while driving, in the track's 54-year history. And it was also only the second week of competition at Wall Township Speedway - formerly Wall Stadium, the one-time racing home of Ray Evernham - which was bought by a group of former racers and team owners last season.

What's troubling about the crash, and DeSantis' death, is that it sends yet another signal to everyone about the inherent dangers of the sport.

More important, the fatality occurred in a series that is used by many part-timers and budding racers as a way to get into full-time racing.

The cars are reduced versions of old-time racers, use smaller engines, and cost thousands of dollars less than a full-size racecar. Surely, drivers can get into the sport through Street Stock races, but those cars cost more and the races often turn into on-track freeforalls, resulting in banged up rides and more financial outlays.

To that end, there's no doubt, many of the folks running in the Legends series have used the excellent overall safety record as a way to convince their family members that they can race and not be in any real danger.

Racers expect danger on big tracks, and in the big leagues of Winston Cup and NASCAR's other touring series. But on a short-track, with the smallest of cars, the only danger in the past appeared to be a driver banging his head trying to get into the thing.

Last weekend, however, changed all that. DeSantis' death is a reminder that racing is dangerous on all levels and at any track - event a 1/3-mile like Wall Township Speedway.

DeSantis wasn't wearing a head-and-neck restraint system, nor was he
mandated to wear one. NASCAR, of course, required drivers to wear one of two restraint systems, in all events.

Before last weekend it's doubtful anyone would have used DeSantis' driving career as an example for anything - he had won just once in another division at the track in 1997 - but his death should be used as an example for drivers not only at Wall Township Speedway, but everywhere.

Racing is never completely safe, not matter what division or what facility is staging the event. That doesn't help ease the pain DeSantis' family is feeling today.

Yet, his passing should put all drivers on notice that should prepare for
the very worst, and hope they never have to put their equipment to the test. And if they do, hopefully in the end, they'll walk away and be glad they spent the extra money to be safe - no matter what the speed or what kind of car their driving.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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