Spectre of horrific crash will follow NASCAR all season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The issue of late-race, multi-car crashes weighed even more heavily on NASCAR after Sunday’s Daytona 500 ended with a last-lap crash that — while not as significant or dreadful as a crash Saturday that injured 28 spectators — continued the phenomenon that clouds the present and future of stock-car racing.
Whether it’s for safety or credibility, NASCAR faces a season of questions and possible answers about fences, cars and a formula — especially at its biggest ovals — that positions cars in large packs and makes them susceptible to violent collisions with the potential to injure spectators.
The most glaring of those elements, perhaps, is the one that appeared most vulnerable prior to Sunday’s Daytona 500 — a gerry-rigged, steel-and-wire catchfence that the day before had sliced off the entire front clip, engine included, of Kyle Larson’s car and sent a wheel and heavy chunks of steel tubing and sheet metal into the crowd. Fourteen of the injured fans were treated at hospitals. Two were originally listed as critical but ungraded to stable.
Reigning Izod IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said Sunday that fencing is at the centre of safety discussions involving NASCAR and IndyCar officials, who will share seven tracks this season.
“The fence acts as a cheese grater, and the car is the cheese,” Hunter-Reay toldUSATODAY Sports. “When it gets airborne, the fence tears it up into pieces. It’s an industry-wide problem, and one we can fix quickly. It would be revolutionary for the sport, and it’s at the forefront of what we’ve been talking about for five years.”
After Dan Wheldon was killed when his IndyCar car was launched into a catchfence in October 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, talk of improved safety in IndyCar racing focused on two issues: a different type of fencing and a different type of racing. The following year, the series implemented a different formula for oval racing, but the pole-cable-wire fence remained the industry standard.
Proponents of a Plexiglas wall — a heavy-duty, see-through plastic barrier — think they have the answer to the cheese-grater effect of classic catchfences. The plastic barrier would prevent debris and fuel from getting to fans while giving them a less obstructed view of the racing.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time in IndyCar,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m not an engineer, but if we get the right people together, it could be done. The problem is that the cost would be front-loaded. It would be extremely expensive.”
NASCAR and its tracks have been open in the past to adapting safety technology from other areas of racing. The SAFER barrier first introduced atIndianapolisMotorSpeedwayin 2002 is now the standard at NASCAR speedways. Wheel tethers, another open-wheel device, are now a regular part of NASCAR’s safety package. However, the tethers failed catastrophically under the tremendous force of Saturday’s crash.
IndyCar first implemented wheel tethers after another incident of parts leaving the racetrack and striking spectators — a 1999 crash that killed three spectators at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Shortly after, NASCAR implemented wheel tethers and other restraints that are supposed to keep body parts from breaking free.
“The tethers came from an incident where we learned with a tire escaping from the cars,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing operations. “We implemented tethers. Now we’ve got to take another look and say, ‘Hey, is that the best practice or is there more that we can do?’“
Critics point to the close racing created by restrictor plates and aerodynamics that create heavy downforce. The result is pack racing — groups of dozens of cars racing side-by-side and nose-to-tail. The balance between an entertaining on-track product and safety is at the core of racing itself.
Ironically, the reason for restrictor plates — now blamed for accidents like Larson’s — is a hauntingly similar incident in 1987, when Bobby Allison’s car went airborne atTalladega, tore up about 100 feet of fencing, and injured four fans.
“In the ambulance, I said, ‘How many people got hurt?’“ Allison recalled Sunday. “They said, ‘Nobody got hurt.’ They put me in the safety vehicle and headed around the racetrack the long way to get back to the infield hospital. I said, ‘Yeah, they’re taking me this way so I don’t have to see all the dead bodies laying there.’ They really had me worried.
“We got back to the infield care centre, and the doctor came out and said, ‘Shut off the helicopters — we don’t need ‘em.’ And I said, ‘If they don’t need the helicopters, that means nobody is hurt bad.’ It gave me some relief.”
After the crash, NASCAR implemented the plates, which limit power output and prevent the cars from pulling away from one another. After Wheldon’s crash, IndyCar implemented a new aero package at superspeedways that lessened downforce. Coupled with a tire that degraded more quickly than usual, the change made the cars more difficult to drive.
The result was that drivers had to “drive” the cars, instead of just mashing the throttle and steering. Cars weren’t able to travel in packs close together, and the danger of multi-car crashes and airborne cars reduced.
“IndyCar didn’t have a single issue of cars getting over the (SAFER) barrier and into the fence at oval races last year,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s because they took so much downforce off the cars that it was tough to get into one another. We need to get our heads together and get IndyCar and NASCAR together to come up with a solution for the airborne car and the catchfence. We need to do it.”
It’s likely that change is coming; racing sanctioning bodies are generally quick to respond to safety issues. But short of lining speedways with a plastic wall at a prohibitive cost, the more likely solution is an aerodynamic tweak that makes the cars more difficult to drive on its fastest tracks, thus separating them.
The danger didn’t deter fans. Minutes before the start of Sunday’s race, Mike and Virginia Edenfield ofSavannah,Ga., settled in to front-row seats in Section I. In front of them were repaired sections of the damaged fence, marked by clusters of U-bolts holding together steel cables that snapped during Saturday’s crash.
Still, they showed little concern for what many might see a precarious position. They were there to see a race, and that’s what they would do.
“If they let me stand out on the racetrack, I would,”Virginiajoked.
Others agreed: The crash and injuries wouldn’t discourage them from watching a race in the same area.
“If my ticket were there today, I’d be sitting there,” fan Brian Domanico, 40, ofLebanon,Conn., said. “I wouldn’t move because of what happened yesterday. … If you said to me, ‘Here’s two tickets to sit right there,’ I’d say OK. I’d take them and I’d sit there.”
The common denominator is the paying customer. Never, Hunter-Reay says, should a fan go to a race and end up in a hospital: “Fans need to feel safe when they go to a race; they shouldn’t feel in danger. It’s a major issue we need to take care of. We have enough smart people in this business to do it, and we can do it in a relatively short period of time.”
(c)2013 USA Today
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