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The race drivers are safe, what about the fans?

Published February 24, 2013

Back in the 1990s, when three fans were killed at Charlotte Motor Speedway and another three at Michigan International after wheels flew off Indy cars and landed in the grandstands, officials at most speedways responded quickly.

They increased the height of the catch fencing surrounding the tracks and ordered the bending of the tops of the fences so they hung well out over the racing surface in order to keep flying debris from going into the crowd.

So it’s hard to say what could be done to improve safety even more at Daytona International Speedway after Saturday’s last-lap crash in the Nationwide Series race injured 33 spectators (the number keeps changing), two of them critically. Link to story here.

But you would have thought the reaction might have been a little more urgent than that exhibited by the speedway’s president, Joie Chitwood, who, after delivering the almost-obligatory observation that the thoughts and prayers of everybody were with the victims, was quick to add that repairs were being made to the facility and everything should be ready for the running Sunday of the Daytona 500.

Everybody is so media trained these days that the words of the officials and even most of the drivers who were interviewed sounded as if they came directly from press releases.

How refreshing it would have been for someone in a position of authority to have said something like this:

“It’s absolutely terrible what happened here today and we’ve got to take a really hard look at how we can better keep these cars together and not have parts and wheels flying out of control and injuring people. Yes, these cars are going 200 miles an hour but we’ve got to come up with a fail-safe way of keeping them inside the arena. Anything less is unacceptable.”

But we didn’t. What we heard was that it would be business as usual come sunup Sunday. Oh, Chitwood did say the speedway would review what happened but he didn’t sound as if there was anything to really get excited about.

When burning fuel sprayed spectators near the fence along the main straight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when there was a crash at the start of the Indy 500 in 1973, officials responded by removing all of the seating close to the wall and restricting fan movement there when the cars are at speed.

That’s something officials at Daytona and other speedways will have to specifically review in the aftermath of Saturday’s disaster.

People routinely walk near the fence during NASCAR races and a video taken by a fan Saturday shows dozens of people start to crowd toward the fence when the last-lap accident began happening.

Cars started to crash together at the beginning of the tri-oval but it took a few seconds for them to reach the centre of the sweeping turn near the start/finish line. In those seconds, people moved toward to fence to get a better look and they were most vulnerable when the car of Kyle Larson left the ground and smashed into the catch fence.

In an instant, the front end of Larson’s car was torn off (the rest of his racer landed back on the speedway and he exited the car unharmed) and the engine and front wheel assembly ended up on the spectator side of the safety wall. At least one tire went flying up into the crowd.

The 33 people hurt are the most ever injured at a NASCAR event. Several years ago, at Talladega, eight people were taken to hospital when Carl Edwards’s car nearly went through the fence. And there have been several instances since where cars came close to leaving the racing surface but didn’t and spectators escaped injury, as a result.

NASCAR – and all big-league racing – now has a challenge. The cars and the facilities (i.e., the SAFER barrier) have been made so much better that injuries are rare and there hasn’t been a fatal accident since Dale Earnhart Sr. died at Daytona in 2001. So the drivers are safe.

But what about the fans? Nearly three dozen injured at a sporting event is not good for business. The danger of being a spectator at a NASCAR race – as was the case with Indy cars in the 1990s – is now very real and this must be addressed as quickly as possible.

Repairing the facility and flagging racing cars off for the next event isn’t good enough. A call to action is what’s needed.

Tony Stewart won the race, by the way. He made it to Victory Lane for the seventh time. Sam Hornish Jr. was second and rookie Alex Bowman finished third. A link to the full race story is here.

By the way, they say that everything comes in threes so this should put an end to whatever’s been going on at Daytona Speedway recently.

Three years ago, you’ll recall, they had a hell of a time getting the 500 over with because a huge pothole opened up in the first turn and they had to keep stopping the race to fix it.

Last year, Juan Montoya crashed into a jet dryer and the resulting fire scorched the track so badly it took forever to clean up the mess and finish the race.

Now this.

Maybe whatever it is, is over.

The Daytona 500 pre-race show is scheduled to start on TSN at noon Sunday, with the race itself scheduled to get going at 1 p.m. or shortly after.

I think it would be nice if somebody from NASCAR or the Daytona Speedway said they’re sorry about what happened.

But don’t hold your breath.

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CRASH PHOTO BY FRED STOLL/DAYTONA BEACH NEWS-JOURNAL

LINK TO VIDEO OF CRASH

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