LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The family of a 30-year-old amateur driver killed in a crash at Kentucky Speedway last year filed a lawsuit Wednesday, alleging that the racecar’s steering wheel broke off in his hands as he roared around the track at more than 100 mph.
Stephen D. Cox, a pharmacist from Ohio, crashed into a concrete wall on September 14, 2014, while participating in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, a traveling event where amateur drivers can pay to drive a racecar on a professional track. He died from his injuries a week later.
“In the horrifying moments before the crash, a panic-stricken Stephen desperately struggled to reattach the steering wheel and control the racecar,” the family’s lawyer, Gary Leppla, wrote in the lawsuit filed in United States District Court in Covington.
The lawsuit lists the Kentucky Speedway as a defendant, along with the Rhode Island-based Rusty Wallace Racing Experience and its owner, Mark Ebert; an offshoot company called SITYS, LLC; and a number of employees.
“Safety is the number one priority of Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, which takes extraordinary steps to keep its customers and employees safe at the track,” the company wrote in a statement. “RWRE stands by its record.”
A Kentucky Speedway spokeswoman did not respond to a voice message seeking comment and an attorney for the company did not respond to a call to his office.
The Cox family lawsuit describes the amateur driving event as “an outrageously, inadequately operated activity.” The company travels from racetrack to racetrack across the county, charging racing fans who want to sit behind the wheel anywhere from $169 to drive a few laps to more than $2,000 for 50 laps.
At least two others before Cox’s death alleged the steering wheels fell off in their hands while participating in the Racing Experience events at other racetracks.
Dave Buttram told The Associated Press he was driving at an event at the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in June 2012 when his steering wheel broke off into his hands. He said he was driving only about 30 mph when he hit the wall and walked away uninjured. His son, Joey Buttram, who was with him at the track, posted a video taken from inside the car on YouTube that showed his surprise as the steering wheel detached from the shaft.
A Spanish tourist named Jose Cebrian Gonzalez alleged in a lawsuit that his steering wheel fell off while participating in a Racing Experience event at the Michigan International Speedway in July 2012. He crashed into a wall and broke both his legs, according to the lawsuit. A Michigan appeals court dismissed the case, finding that Gonzalez signed a waiver and thus the company was not liable. His attorney, Adrienne Logeman, has appealed that decision and is awaiting a response from the Michigan Supreme Court.
The race cars’ steering wheels are designed to be removed so drivers can climb in and out of the cramped cabins. The steering wheels must be popped back onto the shaft and locked in place. Cox’s lawsuit alleges the wheel was put on upside down and not locked into place.
It also alleges that the head and neck stabilization device, required for NASCAR races, was improperly harnessed and that his seatbelt and window net were both years past the expiration dates used by NASCAR.
Cox received a voucher to drive as a birthday present and asked his father to accompany him to the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, where he signed liability waivers. The suit alleges he was driving between 102 and 111 mph when the steering wheel broke off and he began braking, and he smashed into the wall at 95 to 104 mph. He broke his skull, his spine and multiple other bones.
The family’s lawsuit argues that the waiver Cox signed should not matter, as he was not forewarned he would be driving in faulty, outdated and unregulated equipment and was given minimal training before he was turned loose on Kentucky Speedway, billed the “Roughest Track in NASCAR.”
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