Coroner finds Finke safety measures “entirely inadequate” ahead of 2021 death

A photograph of the start of the fatal incident, taken by another spectator. Picture: Inquest into the death of Nigel Roy Harris

A photograph of the start of the fatal incident, taken by another spectator. Picture: Inquest into the death of Nigel Roy Harris

A coroner has found that spectator safety measures were “entirely inadequate” in the 2021 Finke Desert Race during which a man died when he was hit by a trophy truck.

Spectator Nigel Harris was found to have died due to multiple blunt force injuries when he was run over by a vehicle competing in the race, which had veered off-course as a result of a mechanical failure caused by an impact with the track.

Mr Harris had been standing near the bottom of a jump located around 35km from the Alice Springs finish line, a popular area for fans to congregate, during the return leg on the Queen’s Birthday Monday.

After proceedings in August last year which resumed in May, the findings of Northern Territory Coroner Elisabeth Armitage have now been released, just days out from the 2023 Finke Desert Race.

She concluded that while “some measures and procedures [were] in place, they were entirely inadequate to address the known significant risks to spectators posed by the race.”

Furthermore, Motorsport Australia (referred to by the coroner as ‘MSA’), which sanctions the Cars section (in which the trophy truck was entered), and Finke Desert Race Incorporated (FDRI), which promotes the event, “failed to satisfactorily manage the identified risks to the safety of spectators from at least September 2018.”

Judge Armitage added that, “Practical and available solutions to mitigate the risk were identified and yet no action was taken by either MSA or FDRI to implement those recommendations before Mr Harris was tragically killed.”

She recommended the relevant NT government approvals only be granted if adequate safety measures had been implemented, and that a “comprehensive spectator management plan” be provided to the government.

Motorsport Australia senior counsel Bruce Hodgkinson conceded in closing submissions, “It’s accepted that more action should have been taken by MSA to address concerns which have been raised about spectator safety from 2018.

“Improvements should have been made before the race in 2021.”

Bunting had been erected on the side of the track at the site of the jump in question.

However, while Mr Harris was standing close to the track, he was beyond the point where the bunting ended, raising the question as to whether he had inferred he was in a safe position.

When the truck hit two ‘whoops’, bumps which feature on the track, its left hand lower rear axle trailing arm fractured, causing the driver to lose steering control.

While witnesses suggest Mr Harris was oblivious to the danger even as the truck took a path towards spectators, one commented that “it’s really lucky that nobody else” was killed in the incident.

The incident occurred in June 2021 yet a number of concerns about spectator safety had been identified in the ‘Bennett Report’, which was produced after organisers sought assistance from Motorsport Australia and emailed to FDRI race committee President Antony Yoffa in October 2018.

However, according to the coroner, there is no evidence it was presented to the wider committee, nor acted upon for either of the 2019 or 2021 events (noting 2020 was cancelled due to COVID).

The committee also sought advice from an organisation called ‘Risk Reliance’.

It provided a report to the Finke committee in May 2019 which stated the risk of a spectator death to be “extreme” yet, again, it was not clear what steps were taken, if any indeed were, to address the risks which were identified before that year’s race in June.

A ‘Risk Audit’ from Risk Reliance provided after that 2019 event made recommendations around bunting and signage concerning high-risk corners, consistent with FIA Rallying Guidelines of the day, yet, again, there is no evidence that they were implemented for the 2021 or 2022 events.

Doubts about the Cars section of this year’s event arose midway through last month, following the conclusion of the inquest.

Finke organisers would announce on May 24 that Motorsport Australia had indeed granted a permit, and committed to enhanced safety measures.

Scrutineering for the 2023 event takes place this Friday.

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