Jeff Gordon’s triumph marked by tragedy at Pocono

Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 5, 2012 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 5, 2012 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

I’d rather be writing about the checkered flag displayed to Jeff Gordon — the symbol of Gordon’s rise from the throes of ill fortune.

Instead, I’m writing about the American flag displayed at half-staff Monday at Pocono Raceway because a lightning strike killed one fan and injured nine others — one critically — after a ferocious thunderstorm halted Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 before the race reached Lap 100.

Thankfully, the critically injured fan was upgraded to stable on Monday, track president Brandon Igdalsky said.

I’d rather be writing about the day Gordon’s luck changed, when a serendipitous confluence of circumstances propelled him through a wreck and into the lead before the rain ended his day with his sixth victory at the track and revived his flagging hopes of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Instead, I’m writing about a 41-year-old man standing near a car in a parking lot at Pocono a moment before a lightning bolt struck him and sent him into cardiac arrest. According to Igdalsky, a local firefighter unit saw the strike, which occurred at 5:01 ET p.m., but efforts to revive the man through CPR failed.

The victim, who was pronounced dead after arrival at Pocono Medical Center, was identified as Brian Zimmerman of Moosic, Pa., according to Monroe County coroner Robert Allen. Eight other fans sustained injuries during the strike that killed Zimmerman, including the one critical case. One other person sustained minor injuries from a second strike near Gate 3 at 6:35 p.m.

When Gordon took questions from reporters after the race, he was unaware of the gravity of the situation, but one particular bolt of lightning had gotten his attention.

“I’m pretty sure I know which one it was,” Gordon said. “We were walking down pit road. The umbrellas weren’t doing any good. There was a huge, huge crack from lightning. You could tell it was very close. That’s the thing that’s going to take away from the victory, the fact that somebody was affected by that.

“I mean, the fans here are so loyal and avid. When we were going back to the garage area, there was a group of fans chanting up there that were not leaving. That’s just so unfortunate, because they’re so loyal and avid here, so you hate to hear something like that. Certainly, our thoughts are with them. I hope everything is OK there.”

But it wasn’t, and doubtless Gordon, who two days earlier was announced as the recipient of the Heisman Trust’s Humanitarian Award for his work with children’s causes, will carry a heavy heart to Watkins Glen later this week.

Gordon will race on, and his will be a story of rekindled hope. Written off as a Chase contender until his breakthrough win at Pocono, Gordon is now fighting a defensive action, striving to hold the second wild-card spot in the Chase for five more races.

The families of those affected by the lightning strikes will be left to grieve and to deal with the sudden, unexpected intrusion of tragedy into their lives.

Doubtless Pocono Raceway, in concert with NASCAR, will examine the sequence of events on Sunday and strive to enhance the safety of fans when severe weather threatens, much as NASCAR has made quantum improvements to the safety of its competitors over the past decade.

The NCAA, for example, has adopted guidelines from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, advising that all individuals should have left game sites and found safe structures or locations by the time the person monitoring the weather obtains a flash-to-bang (thunder-to-lightning) count of 30 seconds (equivalent to lightning being six miles away).

Perhaps race tracks, which bear the prime responsibility for the safety of their crowds, should adopt those same strict guidelines. Pocono officials did warn fans of impending severe weather through both public address announcements and social media as early as 4:21 p.m., but instructions to evacuate the grandstands and seek shelter weren’t given until after the race was called at 4:50 p.m.

Igdalsky indicated Monday that Pocono will review its procedures and will establish a memorial fund for victims of the incident.

“The safety of all guests to Pocono Raceway is of the utmost importance to our entire staff,” Igdalsky said in a statement released by the track. “This tragic event is at the forefront of all of our thoughts and prayers. We will learn from the incident and continue to implement strategies to help ensure the safety of fans and all attendees at future events at Pocono Raceway.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.