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Saturday 08 February 2003

'Race track deaths were an accident'

The widow of a racing driver killed in a horrific finishing-post smash told how her husband had been euphoric in the run-up to his final race. Ashley Dawson-Damer, 58, fought back tears as she told how her husband had been full of pride and excitement as he prepared for the Goodwood Festival of Speed on June 24, 2000.

John Dawson-Damer's Lotus 63 spun out of control as he rounded the last corner of the famous hill climb at the Goodwood circuit at about 4pm. The vintage Formula One car careered off the track and smashed into the steel finishing post, which broke into pieces. Mr Dawson-Damer and marshal Andrew Carpenter, of Polegate, who had been standing behind the post, were both killed. A second marshal, Steve Tarrant, of Poole, who was holding the chequered flag beside Mr Carpenter, suffered horrific injuries when he was flung into the air in the crash and later lost half his right leg as a result. However, after a three-day inquest into the tragedy, a jury found that despite a number of errors and breaches of duty in the run-up to the smash, there was little to suggest it was anything more than an accident.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict of accidental death for Mr Dawson-Damer and a six-to-two majority verdict of accidental death in the case of Mr Carpenter.

Mrs Dawson-Damer, 58, of Sydney, Australia, told the jury of her husband's passion for motor racing. She told the jury: "He has been racing historic motor cars for about 15 years." Mrs Dawson-Damer, who had been married for 18 years, said it was the third time he had taken part in the festival. She told the jury he was not driven by a thrill of speed as much as showing off his classic cars. She said: "He was euphoric before the race. He didn't like feeling his cars had to go fast to be appreciated."

Police have spent more than two years investigating the tragic accident, which was over in less than two seconds, but it is still impossible to say what went wrong. The only clues are those given by racing driver Marshal Christopher Andrews, who was standing near the finish line at the time, who said: "There was fine rain and the track was damp. I saw the car appear on the brow of the hill. "It came on to the grass verge on the right and looked like the driver tried to get control. The car then crossed on to the other verge. "At that point I didn't wait to see what happened, I ran into the woods."

Mr Dawson-Damer, the Eton-educated brother of the Earl of Portarlington, moved to Australia in the Sixties where he built up a collection of eight perfectly restored Lotus Formula One racing cars at his home in Sydney.

Andrew Carpenter, 40, a buyer from Polegate, also lived for cars and had been marshaling races for more than 20 years. Mr Tarrant, who survived the crash but does not remember anything from two days before the race, is still devoted to the sport and marshals, along with his wife Jackie, when he can.

The jury heard there were flaws in the safety procedures at the festival but that police felt they did not amount to gross negligence. John Symes, safety officer for the Motoring Sports Association (MSA), admitted the finishing post, or gantry, which Mr Dawson-Damer smashed into had not been approved before the race.

The jury also heard that Mr Carpenter and Mr Tarrant's positions behind the left-hand side of the gantry had not been drawn up on the map of the course and track wardens did not know they were there.

After the crash it was discovered Mr Dawson-Damer's helmet had also not been MSA approved. However, pathologist Dr James Simpson told the jury that even the latest of helmets could not have saved him.

Coroner Roger Stone said there may have been errors and breaches of duty but there was no evidence that they caused the deaths of the men. He said he was satisfied the marshals were there as volunteers, were experienced and had good safety training and that Mr Dawson-Damer had not driven recklessly. He said: "My heartfelt sympathy goes out to every person involved." Mr Carpenter's family declined to comment.

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