BY CHAD DARE
DAYTONA, Fla. —
DAYTONA, Fla. — NASCAR drivers understand and accept the risks of racing at more than 175 miles per hour.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of fans at the Daytona International Speedway became the victims in a 12-car accident on the final lap of the Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race.
Indiana native Tony Stewart avoided the final lap melee to claim the victory, his 19th at Daytona and his seventh in the last nine Nationwide series-opening events, but he didn’t celebrate the win in a normal matter because of the situation in the front-stretch grandstands.
“The important thing is what’s going on on the front stretch right now,” said Stewart in victory lane. “We’ve always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport. But it’s hard. We assume that risk. It’s hard when the fans get caught up in it.
“As much as we want to celebrate right now, as much as this is a big deal to us, I’m more worried about the drivers and the fans in the stands right now. I could see it all in the mirror and it didn’t look good from where I was either.”
The last-lap accident sent rookie Kyle Larson’s car sailing into the fence that separates the track from the grandstands and a large parts of the car, including what appeared to be a tire, landed in the stands.
In all more than 30 fans were injured, with 14 being treated at the Daytona International Speedway care facility while another 14 were transported to local hospitals according to Speedway President Joie Chitwood III.
“First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans,” Chitwood said. “Following the incident we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols, and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately.”
This isn’t the first, and unfortunately, will not be the last situation where fans at a motor sports event will endure one of the worst situations known in sports.
In the history of auto racing there are numerous situations where fans have been injured, or even worst, lost their lives while attending an event that is supposed to be their entertainment.
How can that happen?
No matter how many safety devices that are developed from catch fencing to safer barriers to restrictor plates to keep the cars from going faster than 200 miles per hour, the unknown of man and machine is what drives most of these spectators to attend the Daytona International Speedway.
And according to NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell, the sanctioning body will continue to look for new ways to make things safer for the fans.
“As with any of incident, we will conduct a thorough review, we will work closely with the track and learn what we can, and see what we can apply in the future,” said NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell. “We’ve learned in the past certain protocols put into place today are a result of prior incidents. Again, our initial evaluation is still ongoing. But it’s certainly something we’ll look at. If we can improve upon it, we’ll certainly put that in play as soon as we can.”
Many families plan their trips around the opportunity to attend a motor sports event like the Daytona 500 or even the Indianapolis 500 in May. And that’s what makes a tragedy like the one that happened on Saturday the worst possible situation for everyone involved.
The car that flew into the fencing was driven by 20-year old NASCAR driver Kyle Larson, who was making his Daytona debut this week. When it finally came to rest, there was very little left of his Chevrolet.
“I hope all the fans are OK,” Larson said. “I took a couple big hits there and saw my engine was gone. I just hope everybody is all right.”
And there was nothing the young driver could do in that last-lap situation.
“I was getting pushed from behind, I felt like, and by the time my spotter said lift or go low, it was too late,” Larson said. “I was in the wreck and then felt like it was slowing down and I looked like I could see the ground. I had some flames come in the cockpit, but luckily I was all right and could get out of the car quickly.”
While multiple fans recover from their injuries sustained on Saturday, the Daytona International Speedway spent all night repairing the fencing in front of the grandstand.
“We don’t anticipate moving any of our fans,” Chitwood said. “We had our safety protocols in place. Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area. With the fencing being prepared tonight to our safety protocols, we expect to go racing tomorrow with no changes.”
The final event of Speedweeks is today’s Daytona 500, scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m. (EASTERN).
Here’s hoping for a safe and fast race for drivers, crews and of course, the fans.