Track honors 15-year-old who died in crash

It was 500 feet to the finish line. The light tree began at yellow when the drag racers lined up. They revved their engines and bailed the clutch when the light turned green, speeding to more than 100 mph.

It had been two weeks since quads and dirt bikes kicked up clouds of dirt at the Bedford County Dirt Racers track near New Enterprise.

Kaleb John Rightenour, a 15-year-old sophomore at Northern Bedford High School died May 18 while racing his all-terrain vehicle at the track. It was the first fatality in 28 years of the track’s operation.

The Blair-Bedford Dirt Racers Inc. dedicated the track’s newly constructed ambulance tower on Saturday to Rightenour with a permanent sign – “Kaleb Rightenour Ambulance Tower.”

An estimated 7,000 people filled the campground with the track at its focal point. A slightly larger than usual group of 173 racers participated during the daylong lineup of Blair-Bedford Dirt Racers Inc. races.

At the announcer’s tower prior to the races, Ryan Felix of Mann’s Choice, one of the track’s semi-pro racers, looked over the tents and racing pits set up by families, many of which include three generations of racers.

If they didn’t know Rightenour, they knew of him.

The Rightenour family’s pit, next to their longtime family friends, the Brumbaughs, was unoccupied for the first half of Saturday’s events.

“[Because of the track’s mix of clay and dirt] it’s a very tacky, fast track. When the sun goes down, it has more traction than the road,” Felix said. “I don’t think there’s anything more you can do to be safer, except wear a neck brace like motocross racers who make jumps – that’s the only protective gear we aren’t required to wear.”

From the tower, Felix pointed to a light pole with a tall stack of tires around it for padding. That represented the sole safety improvement made to the track since the last race. It was barely two weeks ago when Rightenour crashed into it.

“It wouldn’t have mattered. There’s always that ‘What if?’ But from what I heard from paramedics and EMTs, it wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said.

Amber Brumbaugh of Loysburg, whose daughter is close to Kaleb’s younger brother Kaden, witnessed the crash with Rightenour’s mother, Aleah A., and John Rightenour Jr.

“I don’t know if they could make it any safer,” she said. “It was a freak accident.”

Rightenour’s quad veered to the left of his lane and he quickly reversed his course to the right, causing him to tumble over the tire barricade.

While not inherently dangerous, Blair-Bedford Dirt Racers Inc. President Bill Ickes said, the thrill of the sport comes with a risk that racers have become painfully aware of after Rightenour death.

“People have done some thinking as far as ‘Do I want to do this?’ Parents are hesitant about their kids,” said Ickes, whose children race. “But they are all here.”

Brumbaugh described Rightenour as always happy. He was a “pure soul.” She feels sorry for people who would have met him but will now miss out on him.

“I know there are a lot of people iffy about everything now,” she said. “He wouldn’t want people to stop racing and riding because it happened.”

Racer Mike Rose, 32, of Windber has a family and children who he must consider when he takes the risk of racing.

“A day or two afterward, you question whether you want to do it. I’m married and have kids. I will, a lot of guys will, approach it differently – try to be safer about it. You take it for granted when you’ve been doing it for so long,” he said.

Rose’s employer, GapVax, printed 1,000 helmet stickers with angel wings and the number 531, for racers.

Many of the adult racers, shirtless and tattooed with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, watched while the children’s races carried on during the sunny afternoon in a normal racing atmosphere.

Racers maybe released their emotions with the shrill screams of their bikes and quads that ripped all day long on the track.

“I haven’t heard a lot of guys talk about it. It’s a bunch of guys,” Rose said. “We all went to his funeral, and I seen guys cry who you’d never think to see cry.”

It remains unclear whether it was a rider error or machine error that caused the crash, riders said.

Tires could be a hazard or a help, said racer Willard Riggleman, 60, of West Virginia. Quads tend to flip when they catch a wall of tires, he said.

Aside from tires, a staple for most tracks, he said, there’s foam used by NASCAR – “You’re talking money there.”

“They got some good features here. They really try,” he said.

“It’s safer than riding through woods.”

Riders said riding bikes on the track is safer than riding on streets, riding quads on the track is safer than riding through the woods.

“This is the safest place you could be,” said Brad Dick, 28, of Roaring Spring. Parents would rather take their children to the track than have them ride in the backyard.”

He has been racing at the track since he was 12 years old and has raced at others, too.

“This is the best dirt track on the East Coast. You can ask anybody about that,” he said.

As far as re-evaluating whether he will continue riding and racing, he seems sure that he will not stop.

“It’s a sport. Football, baseball, it’s anything [that can cause serious injury]. You got to look at it as that,” he said.

He said there have recently been upgrades to lights and other features. Riders have an annual meeting to address safety, changes to machines: “We are always going over stuff to make the sport better and safer at the same time.”

The night ended with a slow race, featuring all of the racers and ending with John Rightenour driving a truck to applause from the crowd.

“The support is amazing,” he said. “These racers are only competitors for 500 feet. They really are a family.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.