Chattanooga Motorcar Festival race course revamped for 2021 after injuries in 2019

·3 min read

Oct. 14—After two race course officials were injured during the inaugural Chattanooga Motorcar Festival in 2019, this year's race route is a completely redesigned two-mile loop developed by a motorsports track planning and execution company, organizers said.

"The track is sanctioned by the Historic Motor Sports Association, which manages safety protocols for premier historic racing events across the country," said Micah Johnson, a spokesperson for festival organizers. "The safety of race participants and observers continues to be at top of mind, and we look forward to a successful event this year."

During a time trial race on Riverfront Parkway early on the first day of the inaugural event in 2019, a race car driven by Dennis Olthoff, 30, struck a plastic barrier that went airborne and hit two course officials. Jeff Banker, 59, was critically injured in the incident. Byron Evans, 53, sustained minor injuries and was released from the hospital the same day.

Banker and his wife, Sammye, filed a federal lawsuit in August 2020 against the driver and race organizers Fifty Plus Racing. According to the lawsuit, Jeff Banker suffered serious and permanent injuries that resulted in multiple surgeries, including a traumatic brain injury. The plastic barrier should have been filled with water or sand, but it was empty, according to the lawsuit.

The Bankers sought more than $15 million for damages including medical expenses and lost wages. The case was dismissed in April, and terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The festival was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As planners developed this year's route, they worked closely with Chattanooga and Hamilton County emergency services, said Ben Taylor, director of transportation operations for the city.

"The key update was to expand the review process for all events to a wider spectrum of the city and county emergency services professionals," he said.

While the city ultimately has final word on what activities are permitted in public spaces, event organizers are responsible for developing safe courses, he added.

"The same goes for concerts, bike races and marathons in our public spaces," Taylor said. "They are in charge of providing a course that is safe for participants and spectators based on the proposed activities."

The 2021 track will be named the Pace Grand Prix at the Bend, in memory of the late Jim Pace, a race car driver, event chair and chief operating officer of the inaugural 2019 Chattanooga Motorcar Festival. Pace died in November 2020 of COVID-19. He was 59.

The purpose-built street course will have eight turns winding through city streets and sections of private property, with its main entrance at Blue Goose Hollow Park. It will continue to expand in the coming years, with a longer version planned for 2022.

Events on the course Friday and Saturday will include class races among a limited number of 12 competitors at a time. The track entry is walkable to The Westin Hotel in the West Village downtown, home base of the festival.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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