Daytona & NASCAR Address Fan Injuries
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With spectators still hospitalized from a dark day at Daytona Int’l Speedway on Saturday, track president Joie Chitwood III and NASCAR Senior Vice President of racing operations Steve O’Donnell assessed the damage to the track, and to the sport, before Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.
Halifax health received 12 patients from Saturday’s crash where a wheel flew into the crowd and the engine from Kyle Larson’s car landed on the grandstand side after Larson’s car went airborne and into the catch fence at the end of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.
Of those 12 patients, seven were admitted because of injuries sustained in the crash. As of 10 a.m. Sunday, five patients were released from Halifax Health. The remaining patients have all been stabilized and were being treated for their injuries.
One of those fans is a child, the other an adult. The child’s injuries had been categorized as life-threatening on Saturday; as of Sunday hospital spokespeople said those injuries no longer were life-threatening.
Additionally, there were six patients taken to Halifax Health – Medical Center of Port Orange. Those patients were treated and released.
Track crews worked well into the night to repair the damaged fence and cabling from the massive crash.
“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 last night. We helped all of those released from the medical care to get reunited to family and friends, personal items, cars. 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.
“From an operations perspective, at 8 a.m., we met with NASCAR. We reviewed all of the repairs we made last evening. We worked late into the evening and are prepared to go racing today. As you can see from the fencing that we repaired, we did not put the gate back in. We just had a straight fence there and that was based on timing of being ready today to run the Daytona 500.”
According the Chitwood, the tire fence at Daytona is 22 feet high. The fencing was replaced after the 2009 crash at Talladega Superspeedway where Carl Edwards’ car went airborne into the catchfence injuring several spectators.
“We took all of them recommendations they made, and we actually installed new fencing at Daytona Int’l Speedway prior to the 2010 season,” Chitwood said. “So felt like we had done everything with respect to protocol in making sure we were prepared for yesterday’s event.”
“I think that’s the key of working with NASCAR. I think NASCAR has done a great job with all the safety things they’ve added to, whether it was the Car of Tomorrow or the Gen‑6. I think we sit down and review everything in terms of what happened. I think NASCAR from a competition perspective will continue to address that, and we’d be happy, too. I think the same thing happened following the 2009 incident which caused us to relook at our policies and bring in a firm to take a look at what we do. We’ve made improvements since then. I think that’s the key that we learn from this and figure out what else we need to do.”
Chitwood defended the safety of his track and ensured that fans were not in further jeopardy in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“Well, we have over 100,000 seats on the frontstretch,” Chitwood said. “I think we’ve got very good safety protocols. We had a structural engineering firm come in to look at our fencing. Based on their recommendations, we installed a new fence. I think we’ve done a great job being prepared for our racing events. Incidents do happen and I think those are the exception. If you look at our 55 years in the business, we have a pretty good safety track record. I think we’re prepared today. We met with NASCAR this morning to review everything we did last night, to actually inspect what we repaired.
“I feel like we’re going to do a great job for our fans today. NASCAR is going to give them a great race. We’re going to give them a great experience. Hopefully everyone is looking forward to the 55th running of the Daytona 500.”
O’Donnell hopes some of the safety changes that are being reviewed at Daytona will also be implemented at other tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
“We’ll bring in the best and brightest,” O’Donnell said. “Anything we can learn will be put in place. We’re ready to go racing at 1:00 today. But again, our thoughts are with those affected. I think for the most part the car held up. The tethers held up. Obviously we can always learn. When a car gets up into the fence, that’s something we have to take back, analyze everything we can. We’ll do just that and the process has started.
“The tethers did hold on, but the challenge is that piece obviously got away when it hit the fence. That’s something, again, we can learn. The tethers came from an incident where we learned with a tire going and escaping from the cars. 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.
“When you look at NASCAR as a whole, that’s what we try to do every day. Our fans are first and foremost for us to have an exciting and safe experience at the track, so that’s what we’re going to continue to look at.”
O’Donnell understands why some fans may be nervous returning to seats so close to the racing surface at a Sprint Cup track but he wanted to allay those fears.
“The fans are our first priority,” O’Donnell said. “Obviously we want everybody to be safe at an event. We’ve talked to the Speedway. We’re confident in what’s in place at today’s event. Certainly still thinking about those affected, but we’re confident to move forward for this race.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France said the governing body will continue to review what happened and make necessary improvements.
“You always learn something even out of a tragedy,” France told ESPN.com after the driver’s meeting.”We’ll figure out how to improve things. That’s what we’ve always done.’
France said legal issues are “the last thing on our minds.”
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Bobby Allison went airborne at Talladega in May 1987 and that is the crash that NASCAR decided to bring the cars under 200 miles per hours through restrictor-plates on the carburetor. He believes a lot has changed in the 26 years since that crash.
“They’ve done a great job,” Allison said of improvements since then.”That thing could have been really, really worse had the protection not held up as good as it did.”
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Allison were part of the 1973 Indy 500 starting lineup where a crash at the start of that year’s Indy 500 saw a car nearly go through the fence spewing hot fuel onto several spectators, badly burning them. He believes fencing is a primary area that all auto racing sanctioning bodies need to address.
“Maybe a double fence with one right behind the other to stop something like this,” Rutherford said.”The driver, we can accept [crashes]. That’s part of the game. We have to roll the dice and move on.
“But you don’t want to involve the fans.”