Mike Higginson was worried enough about safety at the Illinois dirt track where he raced that he told his 13-year-old son to watch from the upper reaches of the wooden bleachers. The advice saved the boy’s life.

While waiting his turn for a qualifying run at the Mount Vernon Raceway on Saturday night, Higginson watched in horror as Kevin Beattie’s stock car vaulted a short wall and hurtled through a chain-link fence, killing two spectators. Beattie and five fans were injured.

As investigators try to unravel what went horribly wrong, Higginson hopes the tragedy spurs the nation’s 800 dirt tracks – and the insurance companies that dictate site safety in the unregulated sport – to reevaluate whether spectators are truly protected.

“If fans don’t feel safe, we won’t have racing. It’s that simple,” Higginson said.

Some track operators consider any calls for beefier measures unnecessary, saying spectator deaths are rare. Others say fans assume a certain risk, much like baseball fans who understand they may have to duck a hard-hit foul ball or shard of a shattered bat during a game.

In dirt-tracking racing, various sanctioning groups adopt and enforce rules involving competition – not safety, an issue that track operators readily cede to their site’s insurers. Because there’s no federal or state oversight of dirt tracks – and because insurers write policies on a case-by-case basis – no uniform safety regulations apply.

“Insurance companies rule the roost, and they’re stringent,” said Doc Lehman, a former promoter and sanctioning official who now edits Ohio-based dirtamericaonline.com, an electronic trade magazine. “They’ve got all the power, and they’re doing the best they can to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

Several companies that insure dirt tracks either declined comment or failed to return telephone messages.

Beattie has told investigators that his car’s throttle stuck before the vehicle hopped the concrete wall and knifed through fencing about 10 feet high. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the fencing included cabling commonly used at tracks to catch cars, keeping them out of the stands.

No charges have been filed. Authorities, who are reconstructing the accident and haven’t said how fast Beattie’s car may have been traveling, say the investigation may take weeks.

The track’s owner, Rick Heck, has declined to publicly discuss his track’s safety or insurance. On his track’s Web site, Heck says the quarter-mile oval will remain closed at least until the investigation by Illinois State Police is over.

“We can only imagine what the families are going through now,” Heck wrote. “It’s is by far the hardest thing that I have ever witnessed, and I hope to never have anything like this occur at any track.”

Recent history, though, shows it has. The Charlotte Observer reported in 2001 that of 260 people killed in auto racing nationwide since 1990 from Nextel Cup and Indy car events to dirt-track races, 29 were spectators, including five children. At least 70 other spectators were injured, often from car parts and debris that cleared protective fences.

Recent accidents include a 2003 crash at a track near Los Angeles that sent a car into the inner field, killing a couple, and a 2001 incident at an Ohio speedway in which two cars jumped a guard rail, killing one spectator and injuring at least 11 others.

At Iowa’s half-mile Knoxville Raceway, the last accident involving a fan was in the early 1980s, when a shock absorber flew off a car and hit a woman’s head, seriously injuring her. Since then, smaller, heavier mesh screens have been installed to catch flying debris, though racing chief Ralph Capitani says “even that’s not perfect.”

“Every person who goes to sit in the grandstand is accepting a risk. We post that all over here,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s not much you can do.”

Higginson, 48, had that helpless feeling Saturday at the Mount Vernon track about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis. After he saw the car head toward his son’s direction in the bleachers, he frantically fumbled to undo his seat belts and helmet and search for his son, Ryan.

The father scrambled toward Beattie’s car, resting squarely on the bleachers, and saw victims on the ground below, Ryan not among them. Only moments later did Ryan turn up unscathed, next to his dad’s car.

“I think I aged about 10 years,” Higginson said. “I hope everyone learns something from this.”

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AP-ES-08-23-05 1346EDT

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