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Starting a push to ban ATVs from push-starting cars

August 4, 2010, 5:46 am

When the tragic news of a track worker’s death at Malden (Mo.) Speedway spread last weekend, the circumstances seemed unbelievable.

The worker’s four-wheeler, after it push-started a Late Model, was interlocked with the race car’s bumper and the racer unknowingly towed the ATV behind his car as he prepared to rejoin a consolation race. Acceleration into turn three threw 64-year-old Earl Grubbs to the track surface, and when the four-wheeler disconnected from the Late Model, the tumbling vehicle struck Grubbs with a series of fatal blows.

Most everyone who heard the story from the Comp Cams Mid-South Racing Association event in southeastern Missouri thought it was a freak accident. I did, too, as I joined those who prayed for the Grubbs family, and for the loved ones and spectators who witnessed the quick but horrific turn of events.

But in a series of phone interviews the next day, I heard witness after witness describe instances at other tracks where four-wheelers were similarly towed by Late Models — after push-starts — but those mishaps, fortunately, had less disastrous results.

After listening to those accounts, the Malden fatality seemed less like a freak accident and more like something that’s always possible if four-wheelers are used to push-start high-powered race cars.

"It’s not a freak deal of them getting hooked up," said MSRA driver Joey Mack of Benton, Mo., "because I’ve seen it happen before."

It didn’t take long for me to come to the same conclusion that MSRA series director and flagger Chris Ellis did the day after the accident.

"The one thing I think we can all learn from it is to use trucks to push with," Ellis said. "If you’re push-starting a car at my event, it’s gotta be a wrecker or a push-truck. Because if that’d have been a push truck, that wouldn’t have happened."

Steve Rushin of Poplar Bluff, Mo., a former driver who owns Late Models driven by Missouri driver Eric Turner, once saw a rider leap off a four-wheeler that was accidentally attached to an accelerating Late Model’s bumper at Batesville (Ark.) Motor Speedway.

"There ain’t a Late Model driver in the world that, when the car starts, he ain’t going to gas the motor. That’s just the way it is," Rushin said. "The only way you’re going to keep that thing from happening is just not do it. They need to ban 'em from pushing cars."

Push-starting Late Models is never ideal, but sometimes necessary. And while most spectators have seen scores of cars push-started with the four-wheelers, there are key reasons why it shouldn’t happen, all the more apparent after the Malden accident:

• Without a proper bumper guard, the front of the four-wheeler can easily get attached to the rear of race cars that have no flat surface, only a tangle of bars easy to hook.

• Because a four-wheeler is a fraction of a race car’s weight, it’s unlikely that braking can slow the ATV if a connected Late Model begins to accelerate.

• Riders of four-wheelers have virtually no protection if thrown, and few track workers wear helmets or other protective gear.

On the other hand, a wrecker or dedicated push-truck should have a custom bumper unlikely to hook the Late Model, is heavy enough to slow the Late Model if the two are connected, and the driver is protected by the safety of a full-size vehicle and its surroundings.

"You need vehicles as big as the (race) cars pushing them," Mack said.

Four-wheelers are so ingrained in the Dirt Late Model culture that it’s no surprise that track workers or crew members might casually use them to push-start a car without a second thought.

But it’s a practice that must stop. Some safety issues require careful consideration and introspection before tracks and series act. This doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Neither of the national Dirt Late Model tours have rules restricting the push-starting of race cars with four-wheelers, but officials with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series and World of Outlaws Late Model Series separately discussed the Malden accident before their Saturday events.

Lucas Oil Series director Ritchie Lewis said he recommends trucks be used to push-start race cars at series events. WoO director Tim Christman said series four-wheelers aren’t used to push-start cars, but tracks or teams might do it.

"We don’t have a rule saying they can’t push-start them, but you will see cars being pushing through the pit area (without the intention to starting the engine), and that’s what they should be used for," Christman said. "It’s never really been a huge conversation, but obviously a tragedy like what’s happened brings it to the forefront."

The hodge podge of tracks, series and sanctions throughout Dirt Late Model racing means broadly embraced changes are typically slow in coming. It appears Arkansas-based MSRA will ban the practice, but here’s a temporary solution to spread the word: Simple stickers that read "DO NOT PUSH-START CARS" could be slapped on track and team four-wheelers in clear view of the person behind the handlebars. With donated decals from the graphics sponsors of each track or series, it could be a reminder that saves lives.

MSRA regular Jeff Floyd of Walnut Ridge, Ark., said Friday night at Malden was among the saddest he’s ever seen at a racetrack, and he’s worried it could give dirt racing a black-eye as a sport that flouts safety. Instead, it can be a turning point to improve safety.

"Maybe this is a wakeup call for the rest of the racing community to step back and look at how they handle this stuff," he said.

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