Safety on everyone’s mind at Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Raymond Gober parked his motorcycle outside Daytona International Speedway, climbed off and briefly considered bringing his helmet into the track.
“I was about to wear it in, but I knew everyone would be laughing at me,” said Gober, a pastor from outside Atlanta.
Safety was on everyone’s mind before and during the Daytona 500 on Sunday, a day after a horrific wreck in a second-tier NASCAR series race hurled chunks of debris, including a heavy tire, into the stands and injured nearly 30 people.
With small spots of blood still soaked into the concrete seating area, the accident raised questions about the safety of fans at race tracks. Should fences be higher and sturdier? Should grandstands be farther from the track?
NASCAR has long been a big draw because of its thrilling speeds, tight-knit racing, frantic finishes and the ability to get so close to the action.
That proximity comes with some risk.
And after Saturday’s 12-car melee on the final lap of the Nationwide Series opener, some questioned whether that risk outweighed the reward.
“These are the best seats in the house, but they’re also dangerous,” Gober said.
Gober was one of thousands of fans who returned to Daytona less than 24 hours after Kyle Larson’s car flew into the fence, crumbled into pieces and sprayed parts at spectators.
Early in the 500-mile “Great American Race,” a nine-car wreck took out several top contenders.
Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick were knocked out.
The wreck started when Kasey Kahne let off the gas to slow as they neared the first turn at Daytona International Speedway – not too far from Saturday’s near-disaster. Kyle Busch tried to do the same, but couldn’t avoid contact.
Busch sent Kahne spinning across the track. Juan Pablo Montoya, 2010 race winner Jamie McMurray and defending series champion Brad Keselowski also were involved.
Thankfully, the wrecking cars stayed on the track. Things would be considerably different had they done the same Saturday.
“You don’t have time to react, but I just remember thinking, ‘This is gonna hurt,”’ said Steve Bradford, of Dade City. “We were showered with debris.”
Gober picked up a bolt that landed next to his left foot and plans to take it home as a souvenir from a crash that could have considerably worse.
He and Bradford have been coming to races at Daytona for years, always seeking out scalped tickets so they can get ultra-close to the cars zooming by at 200 mph.
“Needless to say, we won’t be here next year,” Bradford said – meaning the seats, not the race.
He pointed at the upper level.
“Next year, we’ll be up there,” he said.
Not everyone felt the same way.
John and Andrea Crawford, of Streetsboro, Ohio, love sitting a few rows up. They were there Saturday and back again Sunday, just like so many in that seating section.
The area had rubber marks on seats hit by the tire. Several fans pointed out a chair bent backward, the spot one man was sitting when he got pummeled by the 60-pound tire and wheel.
“I’m not nervous,” Andrea Crawford said. “It doesn’t happen that much.”
When Rick Barasso arrived at his seats, he noticed a few reporters and some tire marks. He asked what was going on and then couldn’t stop smiling as he waved his friends over and shared details with them.
“These should be good seats,” he said. “I mean, what are the chances?”
Maybe small, but there’s little doubt the latest fallout could prompt NASCAR and track officials to consider changes – at Daytona and elsewhere.
Daytona has plans to remodel the grandstands. Track president Joie Chitwood said Saturday’s wreck could prompt sturdier fences or stands farther from the action.
“It’s tough to connect the two right now in terms of a potential redevelopment and what occurred,” Chitwood said. “We were prepared yesterday, had emergency medical respond. As we learn from this, you bet: If there are things that we can incorporate into the future, whether it’s the current property now or any other redevelopment, we will.
“The key is sitting down with NASCAR, finding out the things that happened and how we deal with them.”
Daytona reexamined its fencing and ended up replacing the entire thing following Carl Edwards’ scary crash at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama in 2009. Edwards’ car sailed into the fence and spewed debris into the stands.
“We’ve made improvements since then,” Chitwood said. “I think that’s the key: that we learn from this and figure out what else we need to do.”
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said Sunday that things should be done across auto racing. It was just 16 months ago that IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed when his car crashed into a fence at Las Vegas.
“Maybe we need a double fence, one behind the other, with maybe a space in between to do something to stop this,” Rutherford said. “There’s a lot of things. I’m sure NASCAR and the IndyCar series are looking at everything to make it safer. What happened yesterday was a terrible thing.
“The drivers, we accept that. That’s part of the game. We have to roll the dice and move on. But you don’t want to involve the fans.”
Chitwood said any fans who felt uncomfortable with their up-close seating for the Daytona 500 could exchange their tickets for spots elsewhere.
“If fans are unhappy with their seating location or if they have any incidents, we would relocate them,” Chitwood said. “So we’ll treat that area like we do every other area of the grandstand. If a fan is not comfortable where they’re sitting, we make every accommodation we can.”
Few fans seemed willing to relocate.
“Real NASCAR fans ain’t scared,” said Zeb Daniels, who was attending his fifth Daytona 500 with his daughter. “If we see anything coming to the fence, we’ll hit the floor and pray.”
So why take a chance?
“We come for the thrill, the excitement,” Daniels said. “We can feel the heat, the tire rubber in our eyes.”