Death Raises Questions About Kids Motorcycle Racing
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Motorcyclist Peter Lenz died after an accident at the Indy 500 track last Sunday. His death was the first at the track since 2003. Lenz may have been an experienced racer, but he was also just 13 years old.
As Erika Celeste reports, the news has shaken the close-knit Youth Grand Prix community made up of motorcycle racers around the world.
ERIKA CELESTE: Peter Lenz died hours after a practice lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when he fell off his bike and was run over by a 12-year-old competitor. Thirteen-year-old Nick McFadden was also warming up on Sunday and was just seconds behind the accident. He says he and the other racers didn't realize at first how serious the accident was. Now, it's difficult for him to talk about.
Just two weeks ago, he was pitmates with Lenz at another race.
Mr. NICK McFADDEN (Racer): I try not to think about that stuff because it messes with your mind and makes you go slower, so I just don't think about it.
CELESTE: Nick is sitting in the dining room, in his nicely decorated, rural Kentucky home flanked by his parents. His father, Doug McFadden, explains the philosophy that he says helps the family get through tough times like this.
Mr. DOUG McFADDEN: There are dangers in every sport. I truly believe if it's your day to go - I own a towing business, and I see someone dead in a car every week. What's the difference? When you leave here, you may not make it to the end of the road.
CELESTE: Nick listens intently as his mother, Rachel McFadden, defends his right to race against the hoards of bloggers and editorial writers who question why 13-year-olds are allowed to race at speeds up to 130 miles an hour. She says her son and the other racers on the national circuit aren't average kids playing motorcycle, they're highly disciplined athletes preparing to go pro.
Ms. RACHEL McFADDEN: They've grown up knowing they are responsible for expensive machines, expensive equipment, other people's lives, their own lives. Kids that you have seen that don't seem to have that type of respect, you don't see them continue on for many years.
CELESTE: Eric Powell, an official with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, agrees. He says the international federation that sanctions events like Sunday's race makes sure that racers had at least two years experience before they can race at the national level.
Mr. ERIC POWELL (Spokesman, Indianapolis Motor Speedway): They have the most stringent standards for tracks of any entity in the world, and there's only two tracks in the Unites States that are sanctioned that meet their safety measures. And one is here. The other is Laguna Seca. So certainly from a track standpoint, it's about as safe as you're going to get.
CELESTE: The day after the accident, fans gathered at a local hangout near the speedway. Many here are also struggling to come to terms with Peter Lenz's death. Chris Leak(ph) and his wife Danielle(ph) can't get it off their minds.
Mr. CHRIS LEAK: At 13 years old, you're old enough to realize that things can go wrong. And I think if he comes home at night and is saying, mom and dad, I want this, then they're going to support that like any parent would.
Ms. DANIELLE LEAK: Well, you can just hope and assume that the parents explained to the kid what the dangers are.
CELESTE: Jonathan Cohen is an orthopedic surgeon who understands those dangers. A few years ago, he conducted a safety study after his sons wanted to start racing. He discovered that the injury rate for racing in non-motorized sports follows a similar pattern. The youngest children, up to about 11, have a very low injury rate. But as they get older, that rate rises dramatically.
Dr. JONATHAN COHEN (Orthopedic Surgeon): Their muscles are tight. They have these new lanky bodies that they're not used to using and testosterone that tells them to move on forward. And those are the kids that have the highest injury rate.
CELESTE: But Cohen stresses this doesn't mean that kids racing motorcycles are necessarily at a greater risk than those doing skateboard tricks or playing football. He cautions parents to actively work as safety advocates for their children no matter what sport they're playing.
Rachel and Doug McFadden defend the sport that has become a passion for so many Grand Prix families. They credit it with helping improve children's memory and problem-solving skills, as well as bringing families closer as they travel the circuit.
Yet critics continue to question a sport that allows children to race on tiny motorcycles beginning at the age of 3.
For NPR News, I'm Erika Celeste.
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