DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A horrific 12-car crash on the last lap of Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, which injured 28 spectators who were sprayed with flying debris, raised questions before the start of Sunday’s 55th running of the Daytona 500 about improved fencing and fan safety.
Daytona track president Joie Chitwood said the track transported 14 injured fans to local hospitals and 14 others were treated and relased from the track’s infield medical facility. A hospital spokesman at Halifax Health Medical center indicated seven patients were treated at their facility for incident-related injuries, including two who were listed as critical, one a minor.
“I just want to reiterate how important our fans are to us,’’ Chitwood said. “As we continue to keep them in our thoughts and prayers, we had our guest services team dispatched to Halifax and other medical institutions [Saturday] night.
“We helped all of those released from medical care, to get reunited with to family and friends, personal items, cars,’’ Chitwood said. “We transported some of our fans back to Orlando. Throughout the night, we were making sure those released were getting proper care from us as it relates to getting connected back to everyone.’’
The accident was triggered as the lead pack of drivers, led by race leader Regan Smith, came steaming toward the finish line on the front stretch tri-oval at Daytona’s 2.5-mile, high-banked super speedway. Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski from making a move for the lead and wound up spinning into the wall in front of heavy traffic.
The No. 32 Chevrolet Camaro of rookie driver Kyle Larson got hit from behind, spun, and skidded backwards toward the wall and was launched into the air. Larson’s car then helicoptered into the catch fence, penetrating the crossover gate opening and causing the engine and front end suspension to be sheared from the front of the car.
While Larsen was unhurt, a tire from Larson’s car catapulted over the 22-foot fencing and landed about nine rows up in the grandstands facing the frontstretch tri-oval near the start/finish line.
The accident muted the Victory Lane celebration of Tony Stewart, who made it through the last-lap carnage unscathed. It was Stewart’s seventh victory in 11 starts in the Nationwide season opener at Daytona and fifth in the last six races.
“I looked in the mirror, and that’s the worst image I’ve ever seen in a race in my life,” Stewart said afterward. “As much as we’re happy about our win and our accomplishment today, I’m more worried about the people in the stands, the drivers, everybody involved.”
Chitwood said track workers toiled all night to make repairs to the fence. He said the track had replaced the existing fencing in 2010 following Carl Edwards’s 2009 crash in a restrictor-plate race at Talladega, which caused NASCAR to re-evaluate the specifications of its fencing.
“We brought in a structural engineering firm to review all of our fencing arrangements,’’ Chitwood said. “We took all of the recommendations they made and we actually installed new fencing at Daytona International Speedway prior to the 2010 season. So we felt like we had done everything with respect to protocol in making sure we were prepared for [Saturday’s] event.’’
While the fencing, in theory, did its job by preventing Larson’s car from traveling into the grandstands, NASCAR senior vice president for racing operations Steve O’Donnell said the sanctioning body would evaluate the performance of the fencing and the Nationwide Series car.
“When you look at NASCAR as a whole, that’s what we try to do every day,” O’Donnell said. “Our fans are first and foremost for us to have an exciting and safe experience at the track, so that’s what wer’e going to continue to look at.’”
Asked if NASCAR would look into removing crossover gates from the fencing of its sanctioned tracks, O’Donnell said. “If that’s what we thought the experts said we should do, we’d certainly take a look at that. I think it’s way too soon to make that kind of statment without really studying exactly what happened and apply what we can from there.’’
Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, on had at Daytona to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his first career stock car victory, suggested it might be time for NASCAR and the IndyCar Series to look into its fencing.
“Definitely, maybe a double fence -- one behind the other – maybe with some space in between to stop something like this [flying debris],’’ said Rutherford, who indicated the IndyCar Series was especially sensitive after Dan Wheldon was killed in 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where his car was catapulted into the fence and torn apart.
“NASCAR and the Indy Car series are looking at everything they can to make it safer,’’ Rutherford said. “What happened yesterday is a terrible thing. As drivers, we accept that [risk]. We accept that and that’s part of the game and you move on, but you don’t want to involve the fans and we certainly pray for the fans and their safety. It’s just something that’s kind of a shocker.’’