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Motorcycle rider killed in race at VIR Saturday

SoVaNow.com / August 08, 2010
A North Carolina motorcycle racer was killed in a chain-reaction crash involving a 12-year-old competitor during a Cycle Jam race Saturday afternoon at Virginia International Raceway in Alton.

Robert C. Gette, 38, of Charlotte, NC died when he was struck on the track by a Moriwaki 250cc bike driven by the 12-year-old competitor who was trailing close behind in a WERA Motorcycle Roadracing-sanctioned event.

The Moriwaki bike struck Gette a split second after Gette lost control and overturned on his bike, a Suzuki sv650. Gette was attempting to avoid a crashed motorcycle directly in front of him when he spun out. The first bike, a Yamaha 250, was driven by James Bonner of Coopersburg, PA.

The youth, identified by WERA officials as Ian Tetrick, suffered a broken femur and other less serious injuries in the ensuing crash, said Virginia State Trooper T.C. Comer, who investigated the incident.

Tetrick was airlifted to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC for treatment of his injuries.

Gette was killed instantly by the impact of Tetrick’s bike. Bonner, the third person involved and the first to spin out in Turn 14 of VIR’s North Track, suffered injuries in the initial fall and was transported to Danville Regional Medical Center for treatment. His injuries were not considered serious, said Comer.

The racers were driving in a tight line during a WERA event in which motorbikes can reach speeds of up to 100 mph. Josh Lief, general manager of VIR, called the fatal crash “a fluke accident” and said the incident “had nothing to do with the age of the participants.

“They were all expert riders,” said Lief.

Trooper Comer said Virginia State Police responded to the crash “more in an administrative capacity” — much as it might do in a fatal farming accident on private property — and he said the risky nature of the sport precluded possible charges. “You’re out there running that fast on a motorcycle and you go down — anything can happen,” he said.
“There’s nothing illegal about it. It’s part of racing. It’s an unfortunate situation,” Comer said.

Comer said the motorbike piloted by the 12-year-old was trailing about 100 yards behind Gette when Gette first swerved to miss the lead rider and crashed, but Lief disputed that account, saying Gette’s and Tetrick’s bikes were running much closer together when the chain reaction crash ensued. Lief said the youth was unable to react in time to avoid striking Gette.

WERA officials halted competition immediately after the accident, although competition resumed later in the day. Racing was called off for the rest of the day Saturday following a second crash around 3:30 p.m. that led to unspecified injuries to other riders.

“They decided it had been a bad enough day and let’s take the rest of the day off,” said Lief.

The series resumed Sunday for the completion of the weekend program at VIR.

WERA officials stationed at VIR this weekend declined comment on the accident, and through Lief they referred question to the series home office in Atlanta, where the only response to telephone inquiries was a voice-mail message.

In an on-line posting at maps.wera.com, WERA Motorcycle Roadracing Inc. offered a tribute to Gette and said the other two riders are expected to recover from their injuries.
“Condolences go to Rob’s family and friends — he will be missed by his WERA family — Godspeed Rob,” read the message on WERA’s website.

Under qualifying rules posted on the WERA website, riders must meet numerous requirements in order to compete in series events, with the first rule stating, “All participants and spectators acknowledge that racing is dangerous and accept the inherent risks, including serious injury or death.”

WERA requires competitors under the age of 18 to obtain the notarized consent from parents or a legal guardian, as well as keep a minor release form on file with officials. Riders must also carry a WERA license.

Information was not available yesterday on the racing backgrounds of the individuals involved in the crash, although Lief said they were skilled riders who were competing in “top level amateur semi-pro motorcycle racing.”

He said the WERA series attracts competitors from the professional AMA (American Motorcycle Association) series, which is hosting a major event next weekend at VIR, while also drawing younger riders on their way up in the sport.

“If you are parents who are trying to have your child to be a professional motorcycle racer, WERA is definitely one of the paths you would go through,” he said.

WERA rules restrict riders 12-13 years old to 650cc LW Twins machines, although the youth involved in the Saturday crash was riding a 250cc machine. Lief said there often is little difference in the speed of bikes with different capabilities, noting “a two-stroke 250 can make as much power as a four-stroke 450.”

VIR leaves it up to motorsports sanctioning bodies to determine who is qualified to compete in events held at the track, standard practice among road racing courses in the U.S., said Lief.

“These people that race motorcycles and these groups that sanction them, they do as they think best,” he said. “It sounds kind of strange, and I can see where some might see it that way, but that’s common in the racing world and that’s how it’s done around the country.

“They decide who’s competent to race,” said Lief.

Offering what he said was a personal opinion, Lief said participation by young children in professional motorsports competition is widely accepted in the sport, and “if America or Virginia required that people wait until they were 18 [to compete] they would have absolutely no chance of a professional career.

“That’s the tradition,” Lief said. “It’s very accepted in motorsports that people under age can race with proper consent from their parents, with all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed.”

Saturday’s fatal accident is not the first to involve a minor at VIR. Several years ago, a teenage motorcycle rider from Bermuda was killed in a Red Bull Challenge Cup event for competitors ages 14-15. That was considered an off-track fatality; Lief said that since reopening in 2000, VIR has witnessed three on-track fatal accidents, all involving motorcycles, including the accident Saturday.

Gette is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and a four-year-old son.



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