HEISER: Local dirt track racers know the risks and they're willing to take them


Every local dirt-track driver who steps into a race car is making a calculated gamble.

He's betting his life that his own skill behind the wheel, the talents of his fellow drivers and the safety of his equipment and the track will be enough to overcome the inherent dangers of driving at extreme speeds on small, banked clay ovals.

Fortunately, in nearly every instance, the driver wins that bet.

Unfortunately, within the past few weeks, two area drivers did not.

Carnie Fryfogle of Manchester, Maryland, died in an All American Outlaws race on Aug. 1 at Susquehanna Speedway Park in northern York County.

James "Jimmy" Campbell of Feasterville, Bucks County, died during sprint car warm-ups on Friday at Williams Grove Speedway near Mechanicsburg.

The accidents are tragic reminders about the dangers of the sport.

Neither Fryfogle nor Campbell were high-profile performers. They ran low-budget operations and approached the sport as more of a hobby than a profession. Even many hard-core dirt-track fans would have struggled to name them before the unfortunate accidents that claimed their lives.

They also had something else in common — they loved to race.

They loved the noise, they loved the excitement, they loved the atmosphere, and they probably even loved the dust. Most of all, they loved the speed.

That's why drivers drive, and that's why fans love to watch them drive.

Safety issue: In the aftermath of fatal accidents, such as the ones this month, there's always a surge in chatter about the safety of local racing and whether the regional tracks and sanctioning bodies are doing enough to ensure the well-being of their drivers.

It's a discussion well worth having.

Everything, within reason, should be done to protect the lives of the drivers.

The key phrase, however, is within reason. Any new safety measures should be a collaborative effort among the drivers, the tracks and the sanctioning bodies. One thing is certain — government intervention is definitely not the answer.

Part of the charm of local racing is going to watch your high school buddy or your favorite uncle slide around a dirt track at speeds up to 160 mph on the weekends, especially after he busted his hump all week long to earn the cash needed to afford his favorite, but expensive, hobby.

If safety regulations become too expensive, many, if not most, low-budget car owners would simply have to give up the sport.

That would be a shame, because the low-budget car owners/drivers — the hobby drivers, if you will — form the backbone of local dirt-track racing. Without them, the high-profile, big-money teams wouldn't have nearly as many drivers to compete against, and some tracks would likely be forced out of business.

If that were the case, drivers such as Fryfogle and Campbell wouldn't have been able to compete in the first place.

That would be a tragedy as well.

Tug-of-war: Auto racing is in a constant tug-of-war between safety and speed.

Reduce the speed too much, and the drivers and fans would rebel at taking the thrill out of the sport.

Increase the safety too much, and the drivers would leave the sport in droves because of the expense.

Local drivers and tracks simply can't afford NASCAR-style safety measures.

It's a situation that has no easy answers.

Ask most local drivers, however, and you'll likely get the same response.

"I know the risks, and I'm willing to take those risks because I love to race."

Besides, we all take risks. Each trip to the supermarket in your sedan brings some level of danger. You simply can't legislate all risk out of any driving equation.

As long as that is the case, dirt-track racing should continue to thrive in central Pennsylvania. This area has a long and proud tradition in the sport.

It's the driver's decision: On most nights, the programs will go off without injuries or fatalities.

On rare occasions, however, someone will get seriously hurt. On even rarer occasions, someone will die.

It's a sad fact, but one that can't be avoided. When you drive at extreme speeds, accidents will happen, and people will die — be it on a highway or a speedway.

There's a hardy, independent breed of area dirt-track drivers who believe the risk is well worth the reward. With a few rare exceptions, those drivers are adults. The decision to go racing belongs to them and only them.

No one has the right to make that decision for them.

Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.