Track worker killed during Dash race at Daytona
By Paul Newberry, The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A worker at Daytona International Speedway was struck and killed by a paraplegic driver going more than 100 mph during a race for compact cars Sunday.
The worker, 44-year-old Roy H. Weaver III, was standing in the middle of the track picking up debris during a caution period when he was hit by a car driven by Ray Paprota of Birmingham, Ala., track spokesman David Talley said.
The death was ruled an accident Tuesday, although a federal official was looking into whether labor safety standards were violated.
The Daytona Beach Police Department said the death was an accident, pending final toxicology reports. But the Speedway and the Dash Series will continue to investigate, officials said.
"We want to know what happened and prevent it from ever happening again," Speedway President Robin Braig said.
An investigator with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Jacksonville was sent Monday to the Speedway to determine whether any federal labor standards were violated during the race, an agency representative said Tuesday.
Witnesses said Monday that as Paprota came into turn two, he appeared to spot Weaver and immediately hit his brakes, which are operated by a lever behind his steering wheel. The car fishtailed, and the rear of the passenger side struck Weaver.
"He locked up the brakes and he slid sideways into him," said Frank Micali of Boca Raton, who was watching from atop a trailer in the infield. "The guy was running one second, he took two steps on to the track, and it was over."
Paprota, who doesn't have use of his legs and drives a car equipped with hand controls, was trying to catch up the main pack of cars after a two-car crash at the opposite end of the track brought out a yellow flag. Weaver was struck in turn two on the 2½-mile trioval.
"The worker was standing right in the middle of the track when he hit him," said Jeff Tillman, who was behind Paprota when the accident occurred. "It flipped him over the car."
Several drivers said that Weaver's body already was covered by a tarp as they continued to circle the track under a yellow flag. Eventually, the IPOWERacing 150 was red-flagged for about 1½ hours, finally running to the finish under the lights after police investigated the scene and took pictures of Paprota's car in the garage.
Paprota was loaded into a wheelchair-accessible van and left the track without discussing the accident with reporters.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't say anything."
Weaver, the supervisor of track crew, had been with the speedway for seven years. He was the 36th person to die during an event at Daytona — the first since Bryan Cassell was killed while practicing for a motorcycle race on Oct. 18.
Danny Bagwell, who won the Dash race, defended Paprota's racing skills.
"I think he's a capable race driver and I think everybody deserves an opportunity," Bagwell said. "He's a hard worker. We've tried to help him as much as we could."
Paprota lost use of his legs in a 1984 car wreck. He rehabilitated at the same Birmingham hospital where former NASCAR star Bobby Allison recovered from a serious racing crash.
"We learned about him through Bobby Allison," Bagwell said. "That's a pretty good reference."
Raymond Claypool, an executive vice president with IPOWERacing, said that Paprota had raced in three previous Dash events and tried to qualify for a fourth.
Already cleared to run on five-eighth-mile tracks, he requested to compete this year at Daytona.
"We made the decision to allow him to come to Daytona for winter testing," Claypool said. "He attended a rookie meeting and went through extensive testing both on and off the track. We also asked other drivers ... and we felt very confident he was qualified to compete here."
Another driver, Wally Leatherwood, said that the wreck shouldn't be blamed on Paprota's physical condition. Instead, he pointed to standard racing tactics used in all forms of oval racing while the yellow flag is out.
Drivers are encouraged to catch up to the line running behind the safety car, even after they duck into the pits for gas, tires or repairs.
Paprota wasn't able to start the race because of a faulty battery. He finally got going about the time Bill Clevenger and Tony Billings were involved in a crash in turn three.
Billings had to be cut out of his car and was taken to a local hospital for evaluation. He was awake and moving when removed from his battered machine.
Meanwhile, Paprota was speeding around the track, trying to catch up to the main group of cars. Weaver had apparently spotted some debris in turn two and went on the track to remove it. That's when he was hit by Paprota's Pontiac Sunfire.
"He was trying to catch up to the pack," Leatherwood said. "I don't know how fast he was going, but it had to be over 100 mph. It's a bad deal. These guys risk their lives to protect the drivers."
Leatherwood said that racing officials should change the way things are done while the caution flag is out. At the very least, he said, workers should not be allowed on to the track while cars are running — even at slower speeds.
"The guy went on the racetrack to do his job and he was killed," Leatherwood said. "They shouldn't be on the track unless they're 100% sure there's no danger."
Tillman said that the accident occurred at the most vulnerable spot on the track.
"It's blind in there," he said. "You have maybe 200 yards of visibility at 120 mph."
Claypool wasn't sure how fast Paprota was going when he struck the worker.
"When the field is under caution, he is instructed to catch up to the field, obviously, at a safe speed," Claypool said.
Daytona Beach police conducted an immediate investigation into the fatality — contrasting with the wreck that claimed Dale Earnhardt's life on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Law enforcement officials were perturbed that NASCAR hauled away Earnhardt's car for its own investigation, before police could take a look at the vehicle.
This time, Paprota's car was held in the garage until investigators could look it over. They removed a tarp to snap some pictures, then released it back to the Alabama-based team.
The race was shortened from 60 to 40 laps, but Tillman was surprised that it resumed at all. He struggled to a 32nd-place finish.
"I was rattled pretty good, too," he said. "But you do what you've got to do. If you go out there thinking (about the fatal accident), you're going to get someone else killed."