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April 27, 2010

‘Freak accident’ causes death at race track

CECIL — Race officials have described Saturday morning’s death of a race team co-owner as a “freak accident.”

Either the nozzle, gauges, or canister of an exploding tank of nitrous oxide struck a team co-owner in the chest before the canister reportedly skyrocketed over the suite boxes of South Georgia Motorsports Park, said Cook County Coroner Ron Lipsey.

“A deputy on the other end of the race track described it as a bottle rocket going up in the air,” Lipsey said Monday. “And that’s what he thought it was until he noticed that it was much too large for a bottle rocket.”

The blast killed Mike Walker, a 55-year-old Missouri native and a co-owner of the Pro Nitrous team of Blake Housley. The team was part of this past weekend’s American Drag Racing League Hardee’s Georgia Drags VI at South Georgia Motorsports Park.

At approximately 9 a.m. Saturday, Walker was in the Pro Nitrous pit area. Canisters of nitrous oxide warmed in a warming container, the coroner said. The nitrous oxide canisters resemble a scuba diver’s oxygen tank. The nitrous oxide boosts dragsters to extraordinary speeds in drag races.

The warming container apparently worked fine, but something was wrong with the canister, Lipsey said.

At 9:04 a.m., the nozzle and gauges exploded from the top of the canister, the coroner said. The explosion made a terrific boom. The canister started up in the air, struck the side of a trailer before continuing up into the air. One piece struck Walker in the chest, leaving a gash.

Walker was transported by ambulance to Memorial Hospital of Adel, where he was declared dead at 9:42 a.m. Saturday.

Though it had rained Saturday morning, Lipsey said the motorsports park was still crowded but no one else was injured by the exploding debris. 

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence of foul play. The coroner led the investigation. Lipsey finished interviewing witnesses Monday morning.

Given the accidental nature of the case, an autopsy was not performed. Walker’s cause of death is listed as “blunt force trauma to the chest” caused by the explosion of the nitrous oxide canister.

In a pre-race ceremony Saturday, American Drag Racing League (ADRL) President and Chief Executive Officer Kenny Nowling dedicated the races to Walker. Race winner Jason Scruggs “donated the fourth ADRL Minuteman trophy of his career to the Walker family in victory lane,” according to the American Drag Racing League’s Web site

“Mike was a great guy, someone who loved racing, loved being out here and loved his family,” Scruggs said at the end of the weekend’s races. “I really felt like Mike was riding with me today and just feel like his family deserves this win after all they’ve been through today.”

The ADRL referred to the incident as a “freak early-morning accident” on its Web site and noted that drivers raced with “heavy hearts after losing one of their own.”

“This is without a doubt the toughest event we’ve ever had to get through with the ADRL and you have all been part of it and made it one of our most memorable,” Nowling said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to Mike Walker’s family and to see the way they responded to such unexpected adversity should serve as an inspiration to us all.”


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