Stories

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Brian Conness pilots his sport mod during a heat race May 5 at RPM Speedway in Hays.

NICK SCHWIEN • Hays Daily News Chris Heim watches races earlier this season atop his trailer at WaKeeney Speedway.

Drivers walk away after violent crash

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net

It's something no driver ever wants to think about.

But when you're involved in racing, accidents are going to happen -- unless you're extremely lucky.

Drivers and fans at Saturday night's races at Elmwood Park Speedway in Norton witnessed one of the worst accidents in several years in the region during the feature race of the Northern sport mod class.

Two drivers rolled multiple times, and more than half the field was involved in a front-stretch wreck, forcing the feature to be postponed until a later date.

Brian Conness and Chris Heim both were transported to the local hospital in Norton. Conness was kept overnight for precautionary purposes, while Heim was transferred to Hays, where he had surgery for a leg laceration and was released the next day.

"It was just one of those racing deals," Conness said. "You know something could happen every night, either a flat tire or a bent fender or frame or something like that. I don't hold anything against anybody."

The accident happened on lap two behind leader Tyler Frye. Conness was battling for second place down the front stretch when his car took an abrupt turn and shot into the outside guardrail.

The head-first impact caused the car to stop its forward progress instantly and transformed that motion into a barrel roll down the track.

"Like I told my father-in-law, I tried to save the car," Conness said. "When I saw the nose heading into the guardrail, I grabbed my shoulders and was along for the ride. I wondered if it was ever going to end. I felt three or four hits, and then I felt the ride was over. Then I was hit again. It was pretty wicked."

His car came to rest in the track, but for only a few brief seconds. By that time, the rest of the field was making its way down the track.

Cory Struckhoff, who was trailed closely by Heim, hit the brakes and slid his car sideways to try to avoid the wreck. Heim, whose view was obstructed by the close racing conditions, hit his brakes as well but couldn't get it stopped fast enough, hitting Conness and sending him rolling again.

Meanwhile, Tanner Portenier slid his car to avoid the wreck on the top side and came to a stop before being hit accidentally by another car. Portenier's car rolled as well.

"A couple first-responders said I was not responding right away,"  Conness said. "I still had my eyes closed, I think."

Conness, whose car was totaled from front to back -- minus the driver's area -- went back to the track Sunday and saw two sections of guardrail heavily damaged where the first impact happened.

He credits the emergency personnel and others in the pit area for their quick response after the accident. After being examined by doctors, Conness walked away with a concussion and a bruise on the back of his leg.

He said he was worried the entire time about the safety of the other drivers and was relieved when he eventually heard everyone involved didn't suffer life-threatening injuries.

"That was my biggest deal, hoping everyone was OK," Conness said.

Two days after the accident, Portenier said he still was sore but getting better. His first concerns that night were about the other drivers as well.

"I was just a little bit dizzy,"  he said. "But I was more concerned about the other guys."

Portenier's car is totaled as well after only the third night out in it this season.

"That was the worst wreck in a long time I've seen, especially in this part of the country," he said.

Heim might have sustained the worst physical damage. A piece of metal from another car came through the driver's side of his sport mod and tore open his leg.

"I was in instant pain,"  Heim said.

Heim said after he was transferred to Hays, an orthopedic doctor told him the piece of metal that entered and exited his leg missed tendons by only 2 millimeters.

"I think it was adrenaline," Heim said about how he got out of the car. "I pulled myself up to the window, and by that time the EMTs and Dad already were there. ... Then (emergency responders) put an air cast on it."

Heim, who still was in considerable pain Monday, said he returns to the doctor in 10 days to have the numerous stitches removed in his leg. He's also relieved his leg wasn't broken and there weren't more serious injuries to himself or the other drivers.

"It was a freak deal," Heim said. "I've never seen anything come through the side of a car before. I guess it happens, though."

All three were beginning the process of trying to find new cars for the rest of the season.

"It was a wake-up call,"  Conness said. "It put a lot of stuff in perspective."