Uninsured Drivers Racing at Own Risk

Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., capped his return to dirt late model racing last August with a victory in the Topless 100 at Batesville Motor Speedway. He added a couple more major victories in the closing months of the season, but his 2009 began with disaster.

In January, he returned to Tulsa for the Chili Bowl, the nation’s top midget racing event where McCreadie had stunned a field of NASCAR and open-wheel drivers to win in 2006.

The last thing he remembers is leading a B-Main qualifier when his car began vibrating.

A problem in the rear axle of his midget car was the reason for vibration, and the crash that followed was spectacular. It immediately became You-Tube fodder, the images of his car bouncing and barrel-rolling over the catch fence at the indoor facility.

When McCreadie awoke, he had two problems: His back was broken, and he didn’t have health insurance.

An estimated 25,000 drivers like McCreadie compete on more than 800 dirt racetracks in the United States, according to an Associated Press story last month. No one keeps count of how many have insurance, but people in the racing and insurance businesses say as many as 80 percent of drivers do not carry coverage.

A handful of Arkansans race on dirt professionally, most of whom will compete at the 17th annual Comp Cams Topless 100 this weekend at Batesville Motor Speedway. They all struggle with the financial burden of health insurance, which is a considerably higher cost because of their jobs.
“I’ve got some,” said Batesville’s Wendell Wallace, the 1998 Topless winner. “But a race-car driver is considered a high-risk, like an airplane pilot or something like that. Our insurance is just real high.” Batesville’s Billy Moyer, a member of the Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame who is a four-time Topless winner, discovered how much red tape was involved when he mangled his thumb in a racing accident during a Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Late Model Series national event at Little Rock’s I-30 Speedway in 1997.

“I found out if you have better insurance than the racetrack has, you’re better off not to have any insurance,” he said. “I had 17 pins put in that thumb … a pretty major deal. My insurance ended up paying for more than the racetrack would. The racetrack insurance was a secondary thing.” The insurance carried by tracks has improved over the years in many cases, although policies still vary. Most pay either a percentage of the amount or a set amount, usually up to around $10,000. I-30 Speedway’s policy also includes a $1 million payment upon death.

Dennis Huth, president of American Speed Association, estimates that a typical track’s policy offers $20,000 to $30,000 in medical coverage for injured participants. “But there are tracks out there that carry $5,000 in medical insurance,” Huth told The Associated Press.

Many drivers avoid the high costs by deception, not mentioning that they drive race cars on their insurance paperwork. One driver, who wished to remain anonymous, said that after breaking his arm in a racing accident he took painkillers and went home. The next day, he told emergency room personnel and his insurance company the injury happened on his farm.

“When they get to the racetrack, they really don’t think about” it, Laura Hauenstein, president of WSIB Motorsports Insurance, told The Associated Press. “And when you bug them and say, `Hey, we need to do this,’ it’s like the last thing that they’re thinking about.” Greenbrier’s Bill Frye said he can’t afford to carry insurance that will cover him while he’s in his race car.

“Insurance is a double-edged sword for me,” said Frye, the 1996 Topless winner. “It’s sold on the fact of fear. That’s the only reason people have it.

“I feel safer on the racetrack than I feel going down the road every day. But you’re going to get hurt racing sometimes. You’re going to break a hand. There’s a chance you’ll die out there or break your back.” The only medical coverage for McCreadie at the Chili Bowl was through a small policy bought by the event promoters.

McCreadie bought insurance when he briefly drove for Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series last season. But when RCR let him go, McCreadie let the policy lapse. That’s when he got hurt.

McCreadie is back racing – after months of rehab and a few fundraisers to help pay his medical bills – and is expected to be among the favorites when he returns to defend his Topless title this weekend.

Now, however, he’s insured again.

“The bills are coming. I’d be happy if I could almost break even when it’s all over with,” he said. “I wish I could go back and change it, but only good can come out of this if all of a sudden everybody goes out and gets insurance. If people get hurt, at least they’re covered.”

Written by: Rodgers, Steve. “Uninsured Drivers Racing at Own Risk”. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 14 August 2009, pg. 21+25.

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