Fatal Attractions: The Walt Disney World Speedway

On April 12th, 2015, 24 year old Tavon Watson was set to experience the most extreme thrill available at the Walt Disney World resort; a chance to drive a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera on a closed course. It was part of the Exotic Driving Experience. Under the guidance of instructor Gary Terry, 36, Watson would drive the Italian supercar at speeds over 100 mph; faster than any ride available then or now at Walt Disney World. Unfortunately for Watson and Terry, however, this day of high octane thrills would soon take a turn for the tragic.

During his fourth lap, Tavon lost control of the vehicle. The Lamborghini collided, at speed, into a guard rail which penetrated four feet into the passenger side of the vehicle like a knife. Terry, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat at the time, suffered the brunt of the blow. He died at the scene, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. Watson survived with minor injuries. The accident would be the only fatality to take place at the Walt Disney World Speedway in its twenty decades of operation. The thing is, it was a miracle one hadn’t happened sooner.

Walt Disney World has a reputation for not just being the happiest place on Earth, but one of the safest. While there have been numerous deaths and injuries at the resort, only a few have been attributed to negligence on the part of the Walt Disney Company, its employees, or its operating partners. Of these, the 2015 death of Gary Terry is the most infamous, prompting an investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol that cleared Watson of all responsibility. He was, after all, just a young man celebrating his 24th birthday. There is zero indication that he broke any safety rules or did anything reckless. The blame lies elsewhere, but to understand where means examining the history of this most unusual attraction.

The Starting Line

The year was 1995, and the Walt Disney Company was in dire straits. Disney, helmed at the time by CEO Michael Eisner, was five years into what was supposed to be the “Disney Decade”: a project to expand and revitalize the Disney theme parks and resorts for the new millennium. The Disney Decade saw the advent of some classic attractions, like Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror. However, it also saw Disney’s biggest flop: Euro Disneyland. The disastrous opening of Disney’s second overseas theme park put the company in billions of dollars of debt, and forced them to scale back on ambitious projects like the planned west coast version of Epcot. The focus was shifted to finding ways to draw in guests as quickly and as cheaply as possible. One of Disney’s many plans to do so was to capitalize on one of the few markets they had yet to tap: sports tourism.

Anyone who followed the 2020 NBA playoffs is familiar with the Wide World of Sports Complex. The so-called NBA Bubble, in which teams were quarantined inside the Walt Disney World resort, is sort of an apotheosis of the complex’s intended purpose. Walt Disney World relies heavily on hotel revenue and long term stays to make money; that’s why they offer perks like extended FastPass reservations, dining plans, and free transportation to hotel guests. The idea was that if people were drawn to the resort for a major sporting event, they’d be likely to stay on Disney property. Staying on site meant they were more likely to eat at Disney restaurants, shop at Disney stores, and purchase tickets to Disney theme parks. While events like the 2020 playoffs are an anomaly, the strategy has proven itself quite successful. During normal operation, it’s rare not to see at least one high school or collegiate level sports team visiting the parks. When Disney was hoping to have a hit on their hands when the complex was announced in 1995, but there was one problem. While building a sports complex would be much cheaper than the disaster that was Euro Disney, it would still take years. They needed a way to tap into the sports tourism market fast. Luckily for them, a partnership with a nascent racing league provided the perfect solution.

Central Florida was already a hotspot for motorsports. Daytona Beach, home to NASCAR HQ and the Daytona 500, is located just over an hour from Walt Disney World. Race fans would already make day trips to the resort around major events, but Disney wanted a way to turn them into a captive audience. At the same time, a schism in the Champion Auto Racing Teams (CART) League led Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George to found his own rival league: the Indy Racing League (IRL). The IRL came with some built in prestige; the Indy 500 was the most famous open-wheel race in the country, and any race that bore the Indy name was bound to attract fans from around the world. A deal was struck to allow the IRL to operate a one mile oval course on Disney property, taking advantage of a vacant lot in the Magic Kingdom Resort Area. Construction started on the new speedway in June of 1995, with the track seeing its final paving just four months later.

From the beginning, the course was meant to be a bargain. No permanent facilities were constructed aside from what was needed for the track itself. Seating, restrooms, and team facilities would be set up on a temporary basis, allowing Disney to scale accommodations based on ticket sales. By January of 1996, the track was hosting the inaugural run of the Indy 200, and Walt Disney World had established itself as a destination in the world of motorsports. The following year, Petty Holdings, owned by NASCAR legend Richard Petty, opened the Richard Petty Driving Experience on the site, giving guests the chance to drive real NASCAR vehicles.

Hitting The Wall

The low cost of the Walt Disney World Speedway wasn’t damning in and of itself; it was built by professionals, and met all the safety standards of the time. The issue was that 90s-era safety standards were focused on protecting spectators, not drivers. Fans of morbid history will be familiar with the 1955 Le Mans Disaster, in which an estimated 130 spectators were killed when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes crashed into the track’s embankment, sending flaming debris flying into the crowd. Levegh was killed instantly, but countless others were maimed, burnt, and killed by the wreckage. A news report described the vehicle’s hood decapitating spectators “like a guillotine”. Since then, motorways have been designed to contain wreckage with sturdy retaining walls and catch fences. These serve the purpose of preventing another disaster like that at Le Mans, but are unforgiving toward any driver unfortunate enough to collide with them. The Walt Disney World Speedway was no exception to this rule; from 1996 to 2000, the track saw three major collisions resulting in serious injury, including the permanent paralyzation of driver Sam Schmidt. All three took place during practice runs and preseason testing, and none involved park guests. Injuries such as this, while tragic, were seen as a risk inherent to the sport at the time. However, that was about to change.

On February 18th, 2001, fans gathered in Daytona Beach for the 43rd running of the Daytona 500. It would be an abnormally dangerous race, with an eighteen car pileup momentarily halting the event during the 173rd lap. However, the worst was yet to come. On the 200th and final lap, Sterling Marlin’s car collided with Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s bumper. Earnhardt, one of the biggest names in racing, tried to regain control but swerved into the path of fellow racer Ken Schrader’s vehicle. Earnhardt’s car snapped, before colliding with the retaining wall at nearly 200 mph. The race ended seconds later, with Michael Waltrip (racing for a team owned by Earnhardt) claiming victory. However, Earnhardt would not be alive to celebrate it. He was later pronounced dead of a basilar skull fracture, the fourth NASCAR driver to suffer such a fate in an eight month span. He was 49.

Earnhardt’s death was televised to more than 17 million people, making it one of the most widely publicized deaths in motorsports. Immediately following his death, all major racing leagues began scrambling to institute better safety measures, the most important of which would come from labs funded by the IRL: The SAFER barrier.

The SAFER, or Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier, is a type of ‘soft wall’, designed to crumple upon impact. This idea wasn’t new; tires, sandbags, and hay bales had been used in racing for generations. The issue was that these barriers lacked stopping power. If the barrier wasn’t supported by something strong, the vehicle would simply continue forward at a reduced speed, potentially striking spectators. If the barrier did have sufficient reinforcement, the vehicle would be bounced back into the track, potentially striking other drivers. The SAFER barrier solved the issue by using a special “crumple” system. When impacted, the kinetic energy would dissipate across a longer portion of the wall. This would both reduce the impact felt by the driver while also redirecting the vehicle’s momentum to remain parallel to the track. Within a few years, NASCAR and the IRL had installed the barrier at most affiliated tracks. The Walt Disney World Speedway was not one of them.

In 2000, the year before Earnhardt’s death, Disney and the IRL ended their working relationship. The Indy 200 took place too early in the year compared to other races in the series, and competition from Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa (scheduled for the usual weekend of the Indy 200) led the IRL to cease all racing and training at the Walt Disney World facility. Soon, the only tenant was the Richard Petty Driving Experience. That meant that when SAFER barriers were rolled out at tracks across the nation, the Walt Disney World Speedway never received this lifesaving upgrade. It remained as it was designed; a remnant of the deadly days of 1990s racing. While it would see refurbishment over the years, it would see no marked increase in safety. In fact, the biggest upgrade the track would receive would be the one directly responsible for Terry’s death.

Dangerous Curves

The Walt Disney World Speedway was a goldmine for Petty Holdings, owners of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Not only was it close to Florida’s largest tourist attraction, it was also the only location that could be operated more or less year round. Warm weather and a lack of competition lead to Petty Holdings expanding operations at the site, introducing an IndyCar racing experience, as well as the Exotic Driving Experience that would eventually claim Terry’s life. It was this final experience that introduced the most dangerous change to the track; one that would transform it from being merely outdated to being outright deadly.

The Walt Disney World Speedway, like all tracks in the Indy Racing League at the time of its inception, consisted of an oval. This is one of the most efficient designs for high speed endurance races; they’re compact enough to fit within a city center and minimize the number of turns needed to stay on course. As most collisions occur during turns, this is as much a safety measure as a matter of practicality.

In addition, like nearly every oval track in the country, it was designed to be run counter-clockwise. The exact reasons for this are unknown, though there are numerous theories ranging from the plausible (being more aesthetically pleasing to viewers) to the absurd (being a result of the coriolis effect). My relatives in the horse racing industry would have you believe that the tradition began when Americans chose to buck the English tradition of racing clockwise. Regardless of the reason why, the fact remained that the course’s various features were built under the assumption of drivers going counter-clockwise, in a simple oval pattern.

However, that wasn’t appealing enough to fans of exotic cars. Lamborghinis and their ilk were designed for curvy mountain roads, not race tracks. To appeal to this new demographic, Petty Holdings and Disney installed a new “exotics course” through the center of the speedway, designed to introduce switchbacks and similar elements to the experience. It was an inexpensive way to inject new life into an attraction that was starting to lose its luster.

However, for reasons unknown, the exotics course was designed to be run clockwise. Running a track backwards introduces a lot of problems, including incorrect track markings and blocked sightlines. The biggest issue, however, is one of collisions. As race tracks are very dangerous places, there has to be a way for emergency vehicles to enter the track as quickly as possible. Adding in a gate introduces a delay in response times and a potential projectile in the event of a direct collision. A simple gap would introduce a sharp point that cars could collide with at speed, presenting a serious safety hazard. The solution that most speedways have settled on is a wall or guardrail that runs parallel to the track, with a gap that allows emergency vehicles to merge with the flow of traffic. The other side of the barrier begins off the track, behind any potential point of impact, and creates a sloped surface which merges with the rest of the track’s perimeter. When the course is run as intended, any collisions would slide against the longer portion of the guardrail, or collide with the sloped surface and be redirected toward the track. Run the track in reverse, and those same safety measures become deadly. Any collisions will result in the vehicle impacting the sharp point of the exterior wall, concentrating the kinetic energy into a single, devastating point. It’s like running at full speed past a serrated blade.

An archival image from Google Maps of the WDW Speedway. The site of the impact is marked in red.

It was this seemingly intentional design choice that would eventually claim Gary Terry’s life. The Florida Highway Patrol’s investigation found that, had the car been traveling counter-clockwise as originally intended, Terry would have likely survived the incident. Further investigation also revealed a complete lack of safety measures surrounding the crash site. SAFER Barriers were absent, but so were more commonplace elements like the impact attenuators seen on public roadways. There wasn’t even an improvised solution, like sandbags or tires. The sharp end of the guardrail was completely exposed.

As the Exotic Driving Experience was entirely owned and operated by Petty Holdings, LLC, they were the ones deemed ultimately responsible for the incident. They were fined $5,985 for an OSHA violation. They, along with Watson, were sued by Terry’s estate. The case was settled out of court.

As for the Walt Disney World Speedway, no new safety measures were introduced. Indeed,prior to Terry’s death, Disney had announced its intent to close the attraction. It closed on August 9th, 2015, and was razed to make room for an expanded Magic Kingdom parking lot. On Google Maps, you can still see the site where Gary Terry lost his life over five years ago. The Richard Petty Driving Experience continues to operate at speedways around the country. No further incidents have been reported, though similar attractions have reported casualties in years since.

An Orlandian nerd who writes about pop culture, theme parks, and the autistic experience.

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