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INVERNESS — Donnie Lewis, a racetrack official, said he has been around Figure 8 racing for at least 15 years and has seen a lot of crashes involving reconfigured buses, but what he saw Saturday night was a first for him and the Citrus County Speedway.
It was the first race-related fatality in the more than 50 years of the racetrack and, according to Lewis, the manner of the crash was different — the bus flipped and landed on its roof.
Veteran race driver Charles “Chick” Whitehead, 62, of Ocala, was pronounced dead on the scene around 9:50 p.m. Saturday night after the bus he was driving flipped over, killing him instantly.
“Normally in these crashes, the bus will get on its side and slide toward the grass, but this one, it just flipped and landed on the roof. I can’t explain it. It was just an accident, that’s all I can say,” Lewis said Monday.
Lewis was present Saturday when crash happened. He said he remembers Whitehead’s bus coming off a turn into a straightaway and getting tangled with another vehicle, which is not unusual in races, when it began to slide on its side toward the grass.
Lewis said it then inexplicably flipped and crashed with the wheels skyward.
“I would say it was a freak accident,” Lewis said.
Another bus in the race hit the overturned bus, but no injuries were reported from that crash, according to the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office. Whitehead, however, was still harnessed in his seat when his body was removed by emergency personnel from the wreckage. The crash is still under investigation, according to sheriff’s office spokeswoman Gail Tierney.
A message Monday on the speedway main phone number said the track will be closed for the next two weekends before racing resumes.
The speedway has Saturday evening races from February through December. The races range from super late models to street and mini stocks. Special Figure 8 racing events were scheduled twice this season. The first was Saturday; another event is set for the weekend of Sept. 29.
Figure 8 bus racing involves a dizzying 40 laps of a track shaped like the number 8 in hulking buses stripped of seats, windows and doors. The track is 3/8ths of mile in length.
The races are considered fan favorites, often accompanied by shrieks and applause as the buses lumber through, sometimes skidding on two wheels.
Chronicle reporter A.B. Sidibe can be reached at 352-564-2925 or firstname.lastname@example.org.