Mayor strives to improve Grand Prix safety
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.”
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.