Crash, Inferno at Kansas Race in '74 Recalled

July 25--Those who were at the Kansas State Fairgrounds on that sizzling hot day in late July 1974 can still see the images. The sounds are still ringing in their ears.

It was the annual Hutchinson Grand Nationals auto races, and a capacity crowd was on hand. What happened during the super-modified feature's first lap became one dirt-track car racing's most infamous moments.

As the first lap was being completed, a thick cloud of dust engulfed the final turn and the straightaway. Visibility from the stands was difficult. For the drivers, seeing anything but the dust veil was impossible.

Then, one racer ran on top of another car's back tires. There was nowhere for either to go. Then a car crashed into those two. Then another. And another. All told, 13 cars were involved in the pileup. The carnage happened quickly, and it got worse.

Less than 10 seconds from the first crash, an explosion happened. Screams could be heard from the video, as fire broke out near the start of the second lap. Although many witnesses don't remember the screams, they remember the sound of the cars crashing. The first explosion. Seeing driver Jack Petty -- already engulfed in flames -- try to escape his car, only for the impact of another crash to send him back into his burning car.

All that burning fuel led to a second explosion, 27 seconds after the first. A serious problem was now multiplied. People on the track's infield rushed toward the wreckage and inferno to help.

There was no fire truck because, according to the July 29, 1974 edition of The Hutchinson News, race promoter Jack Merrick and the Reno County Fire Department hadn't been able to agree on financial terms. Thus, anyone who had access to fire extinguishers were called on to battle the blaze and help any trapped drivers.

The efforts to fight the growing inferno were futile. Ninety seconds after the initial crash, and 63 seconds after the second explosion, a third fuel tank exploded, sending fire and a massive column of black smoke skyward. People who were trying to help were suddenly scurrying for their own lives.

The third would be the final explosion. A fire truck soon arrived. Scalded cars moved away from the wreckage.

There was some great news that came from this. Not one person died. Three racers -- Petty, Aaron Madden and Jerry Soderberg -- were hospitalized with third-degree burns. Plus, safety standards increased for racing, including the addition of fuel cells and drivers wearing fire suits.

For those who were at the fairgrounds that day, it was an unforgettable experience. Here are the accounts from four spectators -- Roger Cornish, C. Ray Hall, Warren Hardy and Kenny Lehman -- who watched the carnage unfold, as well as Petty's.

Roger Cornish

The Hutchinson native is known for his work as a KWCH news anchor, and he is a regular at the Kansas State Fair as well as the Hutch Nationals.

During the 1974 races, Cornish sat with his wife until the final race, while his father provided the local radio play-by-play.

"She left and went home, and I went toward the front stretch, close to the flagstand," Cornish said. "At the end of the first lap, I was looking toward the fourth turn, and I heard something that grabbed my attention. A car had caught the rear wheels of another car.

"The drivers couldn't see, and they were driving full throttle into a pile of cars."

Cornish said he was so close to the fire that, "I could feel the heat."

Cornish also saw a driver -- it turned out to be Petty -- try to escape.

"He fell back, and I thought, 'This guy is really in trouble.'"

Seeing the wreck, fire, explosions and people literally on fire stuck with Cornish for years.

"It was the kind of thing that happened to haunt me for a long time," Cornish said. "I had never seen anything quite like it. It was a horrible accident, a horrible fire."

It was so bad that Cornish said he remembered watching the "CBS Evening News" and seeing video of the crash days later.

C. Ray Hall

Now the general manager of 81 Speedway in Park City, Hall still was working with the speedway 40 years ago.

He attended the Hutchinson Nationals with a few other employees, and Hall was in the pits -- about 200 feet away -- when the fire started.

What happened in the immediate aftermath is a blur.

"You didn't know who was hurt or who was trapped," Hall said. "It was total chaos. I had never seen, thank goodness, nothing compatible, with so many people and so much uncertainty. You didn't know where anybody was."

The people who knew Hall knew his vehicle, which was parked outside the track, had fire extinguishers on board, and they raced to get them. Then, once Soderberg was pulled from the blaze, Hall's van was used as an ambulance, as he drove Soderberg to the hospital.

Problem was, Hall didn't know exactly how to get to the hospital. Yet, somehow, he found it.

"I had been to Hutch before, but I honestly don't know how I found it," Hall said. "To actually know where it was from the fairgrounds? I didn't."

Hall said Soderberg was conscious during the drive, but he didn't speak.

Even though Hall was directly involved with saving a victim from the fire, he said the incident hasn't haunted him.

"Do I go there and replay it every year? No I don't. Can I still visualize it? Yes, but I don't dwell on it."

Warren Hardy

He's one of the most known figures in Wichita motorsports. A member of the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame and the 81 Speedway Hall of Fame, Hardy was watching the races in between turns one and two when the carnage happened.

"It was one of the most horrific things I've seen," Hardy said. "Every time I go (to the Hutch Nationals), I can still see it in the back of my mind. Part of that is because of the way everything echos off the grandstand. Anything that happens is magnified by the echo off it.

"This will be my 33rd year calling the Hutch National races, and I haven't seen anything like it, anywhere, before or since."

Hardy didn't see the initial crash, as he was watching the action between turns three and four.

"I heard, bang, bang, bang. Then I heard a roar, and the fire broke out."

Hardy estimated he was, at most, 100 yards from the inferno.

He left the track at 5 p.m., and while everything had settled down by then, the remains on the track were a sharp reminder of what happened.

"The magnesium wheels were still burning. You could see the skeletons of cars."

And yet, even after what Hardy and others saw that day, he remains a fixture at the annual race.

"As shocking as it was, this event has always brought in drivers, fans and teams. That tells you what kind of an event this is."

Kenny Lehman

A former Hutchinson resident now living in retirement in southeastern Kansas, Lehman was on the infield that day, helping Jack Merrick, the race promoter.

Lehman said he was about 50 yards from the blaze when it ignited.

"If you look, from when the crash started to when you had the first explosion, it was about five to eight seconds," Lehman said. "You can't react a lot in five to eight seconds."

Lehman said his first instinct was to run over and try to help.

"It's hard to explain what your reaction is," Lehman said. "You just want to do what you can to help, but there wasn't a lot you could do to help.

"It's a miracle someone didn't die."

Lehman said he thinks about the inferno, especially when his son races.

"That's something you'll never forget," Lehman said. "There are things that happen in your life that you don't forget. I remember 73 years ago when I got a whipping from my dad. You don't forget some things."

Jack Petty

Petty, who lives in Salina, wasn't even going to compete in that final race. The dust was going to make the race too dangerous, Petty said.

But he heard Merrick announce that the track would be watered, which would cut the amount of dust that flew into the air.

But only about half the track was watered.

"The only thing I was upset about was they said they'd water the track, and they didn't," Petty said. "I knew if they didn't water the track, it wouldn't be a good deal."

Petty was on the inside of the track when the race started, which meant he couldn't pull off the track. Thus, he began to race, and his fears about the dust proved correct.

"You couldn't see 5 feet in front of your car," Petty said.

Petty's car ended up sitting on the back end of Madden's, and Madden's tank soon exploded.

"We were both human torches," Petty said. "I thought, 'I've got to get out of this or I'll die.' I unbuckled and tried to crawl out, but more cars crashed and I fell back into my car. Then I landed in the middle of this horseshoe of fire surrounding me. But where I landed there was no fire, and two guys helped me out. Those two guys had first- and second-degree burns from helping me."

One of three drivers to sustain serious burns, Petty wasn't given a good chance to live after 60 percent of his body was burned, including 40 percent being third-degree burns.

"The percentage of survival was the 40 percent of my body being third-degree burns, and then they added your age, and I was about 40. That gave you 80, and they subtracted that from 100, so I had a 20 percent chance of survival."

Petty, however, isn't bitter about what happened to him. Like most drivers and racing fans, Petty said he understood the risks that come with racing.

He still attends the Hutchinson Nationals, and he even continued to race a few more years after he had surgery on his hands to ensure he could grip a steering wheel.

"It was just one of those things that happened," Petty said. "It doesn't haunt me at all. I think history should be preserved, good or bad, and this was part of history."

Copyright 2014 - The Hutchinson News, Kan.