Mayor strives to im­prove Grand Prix safety

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By KATIE TABELING kta­bel­ing@ce­cil­whig.com

ELK­TON — Last week­end’s Mini Grand Prix, which left a go-kart driver with three bro­ken ver­te­brae, was a wake-up call for Mayor Rob Alt, who pushed town of­fi­cials and race or­ga­niz­ers to re­think safety en­hance­ments when the race re­turns next year.

“I had to tell you, I had to run home a cou­ple times to drink some Pepto-Bis­mol,” he said dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s work­shop ses­sion. “Serv­ing as the lead­er­ship of the town of Elk­ton, our pri­or­ity, in my opin­ion, is the safety of our res­i­dents. That’s what I look at when I’m out there.”

The Mini Grand Prix, which ben­e­fits the Can­cer Care Cen­ter at Union Hos­pi­tal, has been steadily grow­ing in par­tic­i­pa­tion and its au­di­ence in the last three years. The race in­volves stock karts, which typ­i­cally go up to 36 mph, and mod­i­fied karts, which range be­tween 40 to 45 mph, zip­ping around cor­ners in the down­town district.

How­ever, Tim Heaps of Elk­ton crashed into a hay bale bumper, re­in­forced with a tire and a snow fence, while turn­ing from Main Street to Bow Street. Heaps flew off his ride with the go-kart com­ing to a stop sev­eral feet away, miss­ing a piece of its bumper. Heaps broke three ver­te­brae in his back, al­though he is “still get­ting around” and ex­pected to heal with­out surgery, his wife Amanda Heaps told the Whig.

Days later, Alt opened dis­cus­sion dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing on what im­prove­ments that could be made to the event. Among his con­cerns were that there was no am­bu­lance or a med­i­cal treat­ment sta­tion set up on site and the lack of safety har­nesses used by driv­ers.

It took 20 to 25 min­utes for paramedics to ar­rive on scene, the mayor said. Driv­ers do sign waivers, but Alt stressed that his con­cern was about the po­ten­tial for a cart to crash over the buf­fers and strike a pedes­trian or a child. He also shared con­cerns about the con­duct of the driv­ers.

“Prob­a­bly the worst of it all, frankly, was when two driv­ers col­lided and then got out and started us­ing pro­fan­ity for sev­eral min­utes right in front of chil­dren,” he said.

Elk­ton of­fi­cials had talked about pos­si­bly mov­ing the Mini Grand Prix to Meadow Park so that pedes­tri­ans would have a lane to walk, but that would in­volve a com­pli­cated per­mit­ting process since the park is in a flood zone. Bran­don Hol­len­baugh, owner of Premier Auto & Tire which or­ga­nizes the event, told the Whig that mov­ing the event would also prob­a­bly stall the event out.

“Driv­ers want to drive on the street, be­cause that’s some­thing they don’t get to do,” Hol­len­baugh said Thurs­day. “You know, over­all, we had a good day and there’s al­ways room for im­prove­ment, but we’re en­rich­ing so many peo­ple’s lives. It’s a good cause, and we’re out there hav­ing good, clean fun and some­thing un­for­tu­nate hap­pened this time.”

The race is ex­pected to gen­er­ate be­tween $26,000 and $27,000 in do­na­tions to Union Hos­pi­tal, al­though Hol­len­baugh said that the fi­nal count is not in yet.

Hol­len­baugh added that there have been sev­eral safety im­prove­ments made since last year’s race. The Oct. 6 race in­cluded 350 hay bales and 400 tires to act as buf­fers, com­pared to the 125 hay bales and 200 tires in the 2017 event. Snow fence also lined the course to act as a catch along two ma­jor turns this year, in­stead of one turn.

There’s also more re­stric­tions on go-kart mod­i­fi­ca­tions that specif­i­cally limit speed in the back wheels, Hol­len­baugh added. Par­tic­i­pants also sign waivers and Hol­len­baugh added that driv­ers un­dergo a twohour prac­tice ses­sion in a park­ing lot on Ch­e­sa­peake Boule­vard 15 weeks be­fore the event.

“[The crash] def­i­nitely opened my eyes,” Hol­len­baugh said. “Within 45 min­utes af­ter the crash, we made dras­tic changes. We put a cau­tion out and had driv­ers drive in a sin­gle-file line around that turn and then they could ac­cel­er­ate.”

He added that in the fu­ture it’s likely there would be more tire bumpers than hay bales, be­cause go-karts can bounce off a tire. Hay bales don’t ab­sorb the im­pact as well and there were also times when or­ga­niz­ers had to clean Main Street of hay so go-karts didn’t slide, Hol­len­baugh said.

As for why the go-karts don’t have har­nesses, Hol­len­baugh said that’s true to in­dus­try stan­dards.

“The steer­ing shaft bends on im­pact and it’s a deep-well seat. In the­ory, the hay bale is enough to sus­tain a blow. Go-karts driv­ers found in the past that they’re more likely to get in­jured with a har­ness,” he said.

Alt also read five let­ters from Main Street mer­chants who ad­vo­cated to keep the Mini Grand Prix in down­town Elk­ton into the record dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s meet­ing.

“My mes­sage is not to elim­i­nate the Grand Prix,” he said. “We have to con­tinue to make this safer. I know there’s been some im­prove­ments, but we’re strides away.”

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY JANE BELLMYER

Wait­ing for a Singerly Fire Com­pany am­bu­lance to ar­rive, peo­ple gather around Tim Heaps, an in­jured racer, to ren­der aid af­ter he wiped out at a turn in the Mini Grand Prix Satur­day in Elk­ton.

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