An up-and-coming Penngrove sprint car racer crashed during warm-ups at the Marysville Raceway Park on Saturday, leading to the deaths of two people. Reports indicated one of the victims was the driver's 14-year-old cousin.
Chase Johnson, 17, was driving hot laps — a practice routine that is a crowd favorite — when things went terribly wrong as he approached the first turn of the quarter-mile banked clay oval, a witness said.
"It really seemed to me that something went wrong with the car because he wasn't able to make the turn," said Steven Blakesley, a motorsports announcer who was standing about 30 feet away from the accident.
Johnson's car shot off a ramp from the track, glanced off some tractor tires and into a concrete barrier upon which the victims were apparently sitting, Blakesley said.
"He went off the off-ramp at full speed, so I estimate it at 90 mph," Blakesley said. "My original concern was for Chase himself because of the impact, but I guess he was able to walk away."
The Associated Press reported the dead as a 14-year-old boy and a 68-year-old man. The man was pronounced dead at the scene, and the boy was declared dead either at the hospital or in an ambulance, Yuba County Sheriff's Capt. Ron Johnson told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.
ABC News 10 of Sacramento reported the 14-year-old boy was Johnson's cousin.
Johnson is a Petaluma High School senior and a fourth-generation race car driver, according to his website, which shows him in a red helmet.
The website introduction said that in 12 years of racing he has won more than 140 major events and seven championships. Last year was his fourth in a winged sprint car, the website said.
"He's a very young, focused quiet driver, a very talented driver," Blakesley said. "You're talking about a driver who's very experienced. He's young, but he knows what he's doing out there."
There were perhaps 10other cars on the track at the time, Blakesley said, and it didn't appear that there had been any contact prior to the crash. He said that had Johnson veered to the left, he would have entered a pit area starting to fill with crews.
"It's a godsend he didn't," Blakesley said.
The crash hushed the raceway, where the crowd had reached about 1,000 more than a hour before the racing was to begin, Blakesley said.
"It got really quiet," he said.
Tyler Wolf of Redding, a 20-year-old race car driver, was killed last October when he crashed during a race at the Calistoga Speedway.
In June, a Chico race car driver died from injuries he received when a tire he was inflating apparently exploded while he worked on it at the Silver Dollar Speedway.
"The sprint car thing, this year, from last year to now, has been about as difficult as you can imagine,. But they've all been unique circumstances, it's not one thing endemic to the sport," Blakesley said.
Sprint cars are small, high-powered cars that normally race on short dirt ovals.
Saturday's event, the California Sprint Car Civil War Series, was canceled.
The track is a mile east of Marysville near the town of Linda. Saturday's race was to be the kickoff of a series of 14 sprint-car races, called the Hoosier Racing Tires Civil War Sprint Car Series.