Witnesses question dragster’s tricks on road lined with spectators

Associated Press

SELMER, Tenn. – One day after a drag-racing car careened into a crowd and killed six people, witnesses questioned why the driver was allowed to speed down a multi-lane highway with no guard rails, lined on both sides by hundreds spectators.

“It ain’t really safe to do anything with drag cars on a city street,” said 19-year-old Garett Moore, who said he was about 15 feet away from the wreck, but was uninjured. “They shouldn’t have done it.”

Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Browning said Sunday the six killed were in their teens or early 20s. The accident injured at least 18 others, including a 5-year-old boy, who were taken to hospitals in Tennessee and Mississippi.

The crash happened Saturday during an “exhibition burnout” – when a drag racer spins his tires to make them heat up and smoke – at the Cars for Kids charity event in Selmer, located about 80 miles east of Memphis.

Amateur video of the crash, broadcast on WMC-TV in Memphis, showed the car’s engine revving loudly before the vehicle sped down a highway. After a few hundred feet, the smoking car skidded off the road in front of a drive-in restaurant.

Authorities identified the driver as pro drag racer Troy Warren Critchley, an Australian who is now based in Wylie, Texas. He suffered minor injuries and was taken by car to a nearby hospital for treatment, authorities said.

There were no criminal charges against Critchley, Browning said.

There was a guard rail along at least part of the highway, but not along the stretch where the crash occurred.

Nick Staples, who was at the car show and charity event with his wife and three children from Columbus, Miss., said he was standing 20 feet from where the car plowed into the audience.

“There should have been guard rails,” Staples said. “But even if there had been, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Kay White, a manager at the Elm’s Restaurant across the street from the accident, said she was taking a cigarette break when she heard a crash, screams and cries for help.

“The best way I could describe the crowd’s reaction was like the people from 9/11. They were just walking around with a blank, distant stare,” White said. “You could tell they were … wondering what had happened.”

Mourners placed small votive candles, flowers, a teddy bear and a ceramic angel at the crash site Sunday.

The Highway Patrol said Raven Griswell, 15, of Finger; and Sean Michael Driskill, 22, of Adamsville, died at the scene. Four others _ Brook L. Pope, 20, of Selmer; Scarlett Replogle, 15, of Selmer; Kimberly A. Barfield, 17, of Adamsville; and Nicole Griswell, 19, of Selmer, all died later in area hospitals.

The AMS Pro Modified Series, which sponsors professional drag races, issued a news release saying the driver, a veteran of more than 20 years in drag racing, was performing a burnout when road conditions caused the car to go out of control. The Highway Patrol said it had no information about road conditions.

Matthew Brammer, administrator of AMS Pro Modified Series, which sanctions drag races, said Critchley had driven the car involved in the wreck in competition.

Critchley’s Web site said he began his career in an engine building shop in Brisbane, Australia, in 1986, and then raced on the Australian circuit in the ’90s. He moved to the United States in 1998. By late Sunday afternoon, the Web site carried a message saying it was not available.

Moore, the 19-year-old witness, said before the crash there had been a parade of cars _ everything from antique cars to modern dragsters. But he thought the show was over.

“I was about to head across the street, and I saw him barreling toward us.”

Other dragsters in the parade had been spinning their tires and then accelerating quickly, but everyone else put on the breaks before going past the guard rails, Moore said.

“This is definitely not the kind of road you should be drag racing on,” Moore said, noting that most public roads have an arc, or hump, that lets rain run off more quickly. “This isn’t a flat open surface like you have at a race track.”

Matt Griffin, who was at the car show, has been drag racing for five years and agreed that running a dragster on a city street was a “pretty stupid thing to do.”

“There’s a button inside the car that you hold down, and it holds the front tires down during a burnout,” said Griffin, 19. “If the throttle gets hung, or if your foot gets caught, then you’ll take off and you wouldn’t be able to stop.

“Most drag-racing tracks put down an adhesive to make your tires stick. You don’t really do that on streets. Most drag racing tracks have a fence. Some even have a wall.”

Authorities closed the festival after the crash. About 40,000 to 60,000 people were expected to attend the weekend event.

Cars for Kids holds several events throughout the nation and raises close to $200,000 annually for charities that help children in need, according to its Web site.

A statement posted on the Web site Sunday offered an apology to the victims and their families: “The loss is deep within our hearts and we will carry the scars of each loss forever.”

The charity was formed in 1990, two years after founder Larry Price’s son, Chad, suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident. Price promised that if his son was saved from lifelong injuries, he would spend the rest of his life raising funds for disabled children, according to the Web site.

Price did not immediately return calls seeking comment Sunday.