ANTIOCH -- Though accidents are part of auto racing, Saturday's fiery rollover crash at Antioch Speedway that left a driver hospitalized was among the most serious in recent memory at the popular East Contra Costa dirt track, officials said this week.
Driver Peter Murphy remained in serious but stable condition at a hospital Monday, two days after his compact winged car rolled over during lap 14 of a 30-lap race. The severity of the wreck also brought the race to an early end.
Murphy, of Clovis, had "his bell rung" as a result of a "real bad concussion," said Antioch Speedway owner/promoter John Soares Jr. The veteran driver from Australia, racing in the King of the West 410 Series, was breathing on his own when airlifted to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Soares said.
"It was probably one of the most serious (crashes) since I've been here," said Soares, promoter of the speedway for 17 years. "Thank God it was a winged car; (the wings) absorbed a lot of the impact."
Drivers and officials decided not to resume the race after the crash, the first time Soares could recall that happening at Antioch.
Gary Thomas, a spokesman for the sprint car series, added that the crash was the worst in a dozen races on the circuit this year throughout Northern California and Nevada.
"In races, there are wrecks all the time; that's part of the sport," Thomas said. "A lot of the time they look worse than they are, and you see the driver pop right out. But definitely, this is one of the worst we've had this year."
The accident happened as Murphy approached slower traffic, clipped the right rear wheel of a car in front of him, and was sent tumbling.
Another car, unable to avoid Murphy's, struck the underside of his car as it sat on its side.
Spectators in the bleachers stood up, alarmed by the rollover, with one man saying, "That's not good, that's not good," according to video footage captured by onlookers.
It took about 40 minutes to cut apart the car's roll cage and extract Murphy.
"It isn't unusual to have a crash in open wheel racing, but it was unusually violent," said witness Tom Deal of Hayward, a frequent spectator at the Contra Costa Fairgrounds oval and the Stockton 99 dirt track.
"Any time you have open wheel cars, where the back wheels are going up and the front wheels of the other car are going down, there's that chance it will be flipped up in the air."
Murphy was given a CT scan Saturday night but was awake and alert, Thomas said.
Technology and equipment for race car driver safety have improved over the past few years, including drivers wearing fireproof suits and improved helmets, along with restraints and head and neck support, or HANS, devices inside the cars.
"It's a group and a sport that is very safety-conscious, but those things are going to happen," said Soares, a former NASCAR Winston Cup racer. "Drivers know (accidents are) a possibility when they take the wheel."
Though archived newspaper stories and anecdotes tell of drivers occasionally breaking bones from flipping end-over-end, crashing into walls or receiving burns from car fires, Soares says the 52-year-old track has never had a fatality, or an injury that has crippled anyone or resulted in the loss of limbs.
Staff writers Matt O'Brien and Erin Ivie contributed to this report. Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.