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Safety first at race car driving class

By Ed Brock

Exactly what caused the accident at Talladega Speedway in Alabama in which Fayetteville man was killed while participating in a race driving school remains uncertain.

But officials with the school involved in the accident as well as at the Talladega Speedway and the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton say the schools are as safe as they can be.

On Aug. 24, 42-year-old Bruno's Supermarkets Inc. executive Tony Davis of Fayetteville was taking part in a 6-lap session with the Racing Experience Driving School when the accident occurred, said Kelly Bussey, CEO of the Mooresville, N.C. based school.

Bussey said Davis, who was riding with an instructor, had finished his laps and was doing everything he was supposed to do to come to a stop when at some point his left tires went off the pavement and onto the grass.

"When you drop the tires off into the grass it's like driving on ice," said Bussey, who was there supervising the class like he usually does.

Davis apparently either overcompensated or was somehow forced to the right and slammed into the outside barrier wall.

He was taken to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital in Birgmingham where he died two days later. The instructor in the car, whose name Bussey did not release, was also badly injured in the crash and is recovering at home, Bussey said.

Davis was buried in Jonesboro last week.

Cindy Hargett said the funeral was well attended by children who, like her own son, practiced football or baseball under "Coach Tony."

"He was a big guy physically and he had a big heart, too," Hargett said.

A father of three, Davis had worked for Bruno's for seven years and was a loss prevention manager at the company's headquarters in Birmingham, according to a Bruno's spokeswoman. Hargett said Davis and his family had only recently moved to Fayetteville from Jonesboro where Davis was very active with the Jonesboro High School football program and the Jonesboro Athletic Association.

Hargett said Davis had taken race car driving lessons at other schools as well.

"He was a big sports fan, anything exciting," Hargett said.

Rick Humphrey, Talladega Speedway general manager, said the company had leased the track several times in the past and had a good safety record with them and the other driving schools that rent the track.

"We have every intention to continue to host the driving schools here," Humphrey said.

Racing Experience has also leased the track at AMS before, but was not a regular customer, General Manager Ed Clark said. Clark said the speedway's responsibility is to make sure the track itself is in good order, but the schools are responsible for the safety of their vehicles and classes.

Clark said the Racing Experience and the AMS' more regular stock car driving school, The Richard Petty Driving Experience, take extreme measures to keep their students safe, though there are always risks.

"They wouldn't be in business if they didn't make it a reasonably safe endeavor," Clark said.

Thousands of people come to the schools every year, Clark said, and he doesn't know of any accident involving serious injuries that have occurred while the schools are using the track.

Bussey said his school has been in business for around 12 years and has taken nearly 30,000 students on hundreds of thousands of laps. This was the first major injury they've had, Bussey said.

Students are given extensive classes before they get behind the wheel of one of the school's cars, Bussey said, and they are also taken around the track in a van before being allowed to race. The cars cannot go as fast as actual racing cars, and there is always an instructor in the car with the students. Bussey said they always hope that, if something does go wrong, the instructor will be able to help control the situation.

"But the situation (with Davis) and the results of it simply offered no time for that to take place," Bussey said.

Also, the cars are fully equipped with safety equipment such as head restraints and 5-point harnesses.

"Our hearts and prayers truly are with the Davis family and friends," Bussey said.

Bussey said the sport is intrinsically dangerous to an extent and other schools have had wrecks with injuries before, but they are rare.

Jerry Mendenhall of Peach Tree City took a class with the Richard Petty Driving experience. For Mendenhall, driving some laps at the AMS at 150 mph in an actual race car was a lifelong dream.

"It was a great experience and I would do it again," said 47-year-old Mendenhall.

Chris McKee, director of marketing for the Richard Petty school, said the school has been in business for 14 years and never had a single serious accident.

"We've been very, very fortunate, knock on wood," McKee said.

Mendenhall said his class started with a safety course, a course McKee said can last about three hours.

"We let them know what the car is capable of and what it's not capable of," McKee said.

He drove the car alone and with an instructor, Mendenhall said, and with the instructor he drove around 170 mph.

Along with the regular safety equipment such as helmets and seatbelts, the school took other safety measures.

"As you circled the track they kept a car in front of you to make sure you were staying straight," Mendenhall said.

McKee called that the "lead-follow" technique.

"We take some flack from competitors for doing that but there's a reason why we do it," McKee said. "It's a comfort level."

Bussey said the average cost of a lesson with his school is $395 for 10 laps, depending on the track being used.

At the Richard Petty school ride-alongs are $99 and classes range from 8 laps for $379 to $2,499 for 80 laps in a day-and-a half course.