OXFORD — Citing safety concerns, officials from the Oxford Fire-Rescue Department are asking selectmen to add requirements for more personnel and firefighting equipment to the Oxford Plains Speedway’s annual mass-gathering permit, or include similar provisions in its annual rescue service contracts with the town. 

The department said the Route 26 racetrack has too few trained firefighters on hand during races and is not outfitting them with adequate safety equipment.

Speedway officials say the track is being run safely, although they acknowledge that some of the department’s recommendations are appropriate. 

Selectmen, at a meeting last Thursday, OK’d the speedway’s mass-gathering permit for the 2014 season, but final approval is contingent on an agreement between OPS management and a local emergency medical service that needs to be signed before the racing season begins in early April.

According to its mass-gathering permit, OPS has a maximum seating capacity of 14,250.

In an undated letter sent to Town Manager Michael Chammings, Oxford fire Chief Scott Hunter said last year that the speedway “failed to provide adequate fire protection for the track.”

Specifically, OPS only has one trained firefighter on hand to operate its fire engine, leaving Oxford Rescue employees to extinguish several blazes in the past season, Hunter said.

He asked Chammings to put additional requirements on the speedway, including having a minimum of two trained firefighters to operate equipment, have firefighters in the pit area during certain races, and have Engine 5 on hand during high-risk Motor Mayhem events.

At a public hearing on Thursday, Oxford fire Capt. Shawn Cordwell said there were instances last year when no trained firefighters were at the racetrack and staff “with no obvious fire background or certification” operated the speedway’s fire truck.

The speedway’s employees are not equipped with any fire-resistant NOMEX equipment, leaving them fighting possibly dangerous fires in T-shirts and blue jeans, Cordwell told selectmen.

The Oxford 250 race poses specific safety challenges, Cordwell continued, stemming from “hot-fueling” race cars, a practice that is extremely dangerous and involves spilling volatile fuel, while race crews are smoking or running electrical generators near gas cans.

“This is an issue we’ve been talking about and dealing with for a long time,” Cordwell said outside the hearing Thursday.

“We want to be business-friendly, we want to be reasonable, we’re trying to find that medium between safety and economics,” he said.

The contract proposed by Oxford Fire-Rescue for emergency medical services includes a rescue vehicle, for $55 an hour and rescue employees, which the speedway pays at their normal rates.

This year, the proposed service contract provides for two employees to solely cover the Oxford Plains Dragway and a provision requiring the speedway to tell  the department about race changes within 48 hours or risk a $100 fine. It was added because of  misunderstandings between the town and racetrack owners last year.

The dragway abuts the speedway.

Oxford Rescue Capt. Patty Hesse said rescue personnel determined that having only one employee on hand at the drag strip was too dangerous.

Speedway officials, at Thursday’s public hearing, disagreed strongly with claims about racetrack safety. Many of the concerns were issues before the track was purchased by Tom Mayberry in 2012 and have since been cleared up, said Mayberry’s son and speedway Vice President Mike Mayberry.

“As far as the fires we had this year that they’re saying we’re not adequately prepared to handle, or we did not have the appropriate staff to handle them, I’m kind of at a loss for which ones that would be,” Mike Mayberry said.

In an interview in his office Friday, General Manager Dick Therrien said “hot fueling” concerns are unfounded. Since 2012, the speedway has been racing Pro Late Model cars, which have automatic fuel shut-offs and are usually equipped with on-board fire suppression systems.

In more than a decade of running late-model races, he has never dealt with a fire started by a fueling problem, Therrien said.

Experienced racing crews, he said, often have more experience than first responders in dealing with racetrack fires and emergencies.

Therrien admitted there were instances when qualified firefighters were not available to operate the speedway’s aging firetruck, and said the company intends to buy safety equipment for its employees.

Though admitting changes were needed, Therrien balked at the idea that Oxford Fire-Rescue was mandating new safety requirements, adding to the challenge of running an expensive sport in a troubled economy.

“We feel that if they want to continue to add services it should be included in the rates that we already pay,” Therrein said. 

He noted that the speedway undergoes thorough inspections by the company’s  insurance carrier and has never been told it needs to change its policy. Last year the speedway had a $5 million policy from Axis Insurance Co., according to its 2013 gathering permit.

“Our track is safe, our series is safe, we are scrutinized by the insurance company,” Therrein said. “We have done everything we can under the guidelines to make sure our racers and spectators are safe.”

Chammings said Monday that he has yet to discuss a new contract and with Oxford Fire-Rescue and the speedway, but anticipated an agreement would be put together in time for the first race on April 11.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: