Monday, August 12, 2002

Actor hurt in Ky. Speedway crash

By Dustin Dow, Randy Tucker and Stephenie Steitzer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jason Priestley
(AP file photo)
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        SPARTA, Ky. - Actor and auto racer Jason Priestley, known more for his role as Brandon Walsh on Beverly Hills 90210 than as an aspiring Indy car driver, suffered serious head and back injuries after his race car crashed Sunday during a final practice run at Kentucky Speedway.

        Mr. Priestley, 32, fractured his thoracic spine, broke both feet and his nose, and suffered a concussion, hospital officials said. He was airlifted to the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington after the 8:50 a.m. accident - the first serious crash at the track since it opened in 2000.

        “The only life support he is on right now is a respirator,” Dr. Henry Bock, Indy Racing League's medical director, said. “He is responding to verbal commands, but he's not speaking. Although he broke a vertebrae, there is no indication that the spinal cord is injured.”

        Dr. Bock said Mr. Priestley's injuries are not life-threatening and paralysis won't be an issue because he has feeling throughout his body. It is too soon to speculate recovery time, he added.

The front of Priestly's car, back in the garage, reveals the force of the crash.
(AP photo)
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        Mr. Priestley was racing at nearly 180 miles per hour when he lost control of his Kelley Racing car on the second turn of the track during a morning practice run for the Infiniti Pro Series 100, an Indy Racing League developmental circuit in its first season. He initially hit head-on with the outside wall, breaking off the nose of his car. It then spun back down the track and slammed nose-first into a concrete retaining wall on the inside of the track.

        Infiniti Pro series driver Ed Carpenter, one of several drivers taking a final practice run with Mr. Priestley when the accident occurred, said he was looking in his rear-view mirror when he saw Mr. Priestley's car slide sideways in an oil slick coming out of a turn, then crash into the wall after the driver apparently over-corrected the steering.

        “I came back around to look at the damage; it didn't look that bad,” Mr. Carpenter said. “But those head-first crashes are the kind that cause head and neck injuries.”

Emergency workers rush Priestley to a helicopter.
(AP photo)
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        Mr. Priestley - a 10-year racing veteran who was preparing to race Sunday afternoon - was wearing a Hutchens head and neck restraint device, one of two well-known instruments for reducing head and neck impact during crashes.

        The IRL does not mandate that drivers wear the Hutchens or HANS device, which is the more researched and more expensive of the two. NASCAR mandated use of such restraints shortly after seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt died of a fractured skull last year in the Daytona 500.

        Mr. Priestley's violent crash is likely to renew calls for safety, including the installation of “soft-wall” technology, which has become a hot topic at the $152 million, state-of-the-art Kentucky Speedway.

Claim to fame: Jason Priestly is best known for his role as Brandon Walsh in the television series "Beverly Hills 90210," about the problems and pleasures of a group of rich children who went to high school in Beverly Hills. The successful show turned a number of young actors into instant celebrities, including Mr. Priestly, Luke Perry, Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth. Mr. Priestly was in the show from its start in 1990 until 1998. The show ended in 2000.

Film credits: Mr. Priestly has made many guest appearances on television and played in more than 40 movies and documentaries which were made-for-TV as well as the big-screen. His best known films were "Eye of the Beholder" (1999), which also starred Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd and "Love and Death on Long Island" (1997). He also has been a producer and director.

Personal: Mr. Priestly, who will turn 33 on Aug. 28, was born in 1969 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His sister, Justine, a year older than he, is an actress.

Political: He defended Canada's environmental record this year at a celebrity fund-raiser for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Waterkeeper Alliance.

Racing history: Mr. Priestly began racing in the California Rally Series in 1991, and participated in the SCCA Pro Rally Series, IMSA Firehawk Series, Magna Enduro Series and Sportscar GTS1 Series during the 1990s. His first victory was at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 1998. Before Sunday's crash, Mr. Priestly had placed second in qualifiers for the Infiniti Pro Series race at Kentucky Speedway.
        Unlike Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500, Kentucky Speedway does not have the new Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) “soft walls” developed by University of Nebraska engineers.

        “The walls are designed so they take the majority of the impact, not the driver or the car,” said Dr. John Rhode, a University of Nebraska civil engineer who helped develop the walls. “That's unlike the current concrete walls at most of the speedways.”

        Dr. Bock said a softer wall would have taken some of the impact of the crash, but he isn't sure if it would have prevented Mr. Priestley's injuries.

        General Manager Mark Cassis said Kentucky Speedway will not install soft walls unless one of racing's governing bodies demands it.

        “What happened this morning doesn't change that thinking,” Mr. Cassis said, referring to Mr. Priestley's wreck.

        The accident also didn't change the racing schedule at the Speedway Sunday afternoon.

        The Belterra Casino Indy 300, an Indy Racing League event, started promptly at 1:30 p.m. after announcers said a prayer for Mr. Priestley.

        Many race-goers were unaware of the early morning wreck or who was involved.

        Delhi Township resident Brad Silber, who didn't see the accident, met Mr. Priestley Saturday when he was signing autographs with other drivers.

        “I'd almost say he was the friendliest one,” Mr. Silber, 40, said.

        Mr. Priestley is a former teen idol who began racing in the California Rally Series in 1991. He also participated in the SCCA Pro Rally Series, IMSA Firehawk Series, Magna Enduro Series and Sportscar GTS1 Series during the 1990s. His first victory was at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 1998.

        Mr. Priestley was an announcer for ABC Sports for Indy Racing League broadcasts last year. He joined the Kelley Racing team this year as a driver in the Infiniti Pro Series - a developmental circuit in which drivers race cars that are similar but less powerful than Indy cars.

        He had qualified second for the pro series race on Saturday behind series leader A.J. Foyt IV - the grandson of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion A.J. Foyt.

        Mr. Priestley has been in accidents before. He crashed a powerboat during a race in Miami in April, leaving one crew member with cracked ribs, and in 1995, he crashed into a ditch during the Michelin SCCA Pro Rally in Olympia, Wash., but recovered to finish the race.

        Last year, he completed an alcohol-counseling program after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor DUI charge stemming from a December 1999 car crash in Hollywood. The accident totaled Mr. Priestley's Porsche and broke his friend's arm.

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