They start racing at age 6. A few years ago, the minimum racing age was 5 — kindergartners racing miniature hot rods. Both the Kid Sprint class (for kids ages 6-12) and the Restrictor Sprint class (ages 10-16) at I-44 Speedway give aspiring sprint car drivers a chance to train for bigger cars and faster races. And while the Kid Sprints reach speeds of about 40 mph, and the Restrictor Sprints reach speeds close to 70, parents of children who drive in both divisions at I-44 insist racing is safer than most sports, including baseball and football. "You have a fire retardant uniform, a roll cage and a five-point seat belt,” said Wade Jarvis, who has boys who race in both divisions. "It really is safer.” Greg Moore, whose 12-year-old daughter competes in the Restrictor Sprints division, agreed. "My kids play football and baseball, and I have seen 10 times more injuries in those sports than I have in racing,” Moore said. "When you have all the safety stuff in place, it is very safe.”
Requirements are increasingAll the safety equipment, though, was allegedly not in place Saturday night when Harli White, 12, of Lindsay suffered third-degree burns after her Restrictor Sprint caught fire at I-44 Speedway. Spectators and drivers who witnessed the crash said a combination of Harli's insufficient equipment and lack of preparation is responsible for the burns. Moore said if Harli's car had a bladder inside its fuel tank, the blaze never would have happened. The bladder is a woven, rubber casing that fits inside the fuel tank at the rear of the car. The bladder holds fuel in case the outer shell of the car is punctured. While bladders are mandatory for some race cars, like those that race at State Fair Speedway in Oklahoma City, miniature sprints like Harli's are not required to have them. Moore said the American Sprint Car Series II and POWRi mini-Sprint divisions will require fuel-tank bladders next season. The two series decided to make the change for 2009 before Harli's crash. Cost might be a reason bladders have not been mandatory. A standard bladder kit costs about $1,250 for a mini sprint. "I'm now strongly recommending (bladders) to everyone,” said Scott Sawyer, a Broken Arrow resident who witnessed the fire. "I'm trying to get the cost down so I can sell them for less.”
Clothing problems also reportedHarli was reportedly not wearing a sufficient uniform, which also played a role in the severe burns. Most drivers wear double- or triple-layer fire retardant uniforms, in addition to Nomex fire retardant undergarments. Harli was wearing only a single-layer uniform and no fire-retardant underwear on Saturday night. Michelle Decker, who walked away from a burning car at State Fair Speedway in 2005, said she takes her equipment seriously. "It is really important,” Decker said. "I wear double layers, always wear Nomex, and get new gloves every year. And I have to make sure everything is tucked in.” Donnie Ray Crawford, a fellow driver who pulled Harli from the burning car and smothered her to extinguish the fire, wears a triple-layer uniform and Nomex underwear. Crawford' said his uniform melted, and he suffered only minor blisters. "The more you race, the more experienced you get,” said Crawford, a 20-year-old Tulsan whose family has been in auto racing for many years. Moore said Harli's car contained nearly 12 gallons of fuel, while 2 to 2½ gallons is sufficient to complete a race. Moore said Harli removed her helmet after the car caught fire. "That (much fuel) is a big mistake,” Moore said. "It is just a rookie mistake, and she didn't know.” Sawyer said I-44 Speedway officials were not prepared for the accident. He said the water hose was not long enough to reach the fire, and track officials were not wearing fire-retardant gear. "We can't point fingers at I-44, but we need to set a precedent for other tracks,” Crawford said. "We need track officials in full driving suits. But I don't know any tracks that would have been prepared for a fire like that.” I-44 Speedway owner Clyde Steen declined comment on Monday and asked an Oklahoman reporter to leave his property.