By Randy Covitz
The Kansas City Star via McClatchy Newspapers
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart was horrified as he looked in the mirror while taking the checkered flag in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Saturday. The scene that played out behind him was unlike anything he had seen in his decades-long career in motorsports.
At least 28 fans were injured by flying debris from rookie Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet, which went hurtling airborne into the wall and broke into pieces on the front stretch of Daytona International Speedway.
“That’s the worst image I’ve ever seen in a race in my life,” said a somber Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion and veteran of IndyCar racing.
The heart-stopping accident cast a pall on what promised to be an epic edition of the “Super Bowl of stock-car racing.” Even by Daytona’s storied standards, today’s main-event race — the 55th running of the Daytona 500 — carried extra excitement thanks to the debut of the new “Generation 6” car and the fact that for the first time, a woman — Danica Patrick — would start from the pole position.
Instead, in the wake of Saturday’s terrible wreck, those storylines will share top billing with safety around the racetrack.
Track president Joie Chitwood said 14 fans were transported to area hospitals and another 14 were treated at the track’s infield care center. Some fans were seen tearing off their shirts and using them to stop the bleeding of victims. Chitwood declined to comment about the condition of those who were hospitalized, referring questions to the medical facilities.
Reports later Saturday night indicated at least two spectators, one adult and one child, were in critical condition at area medical facilities. The adult sustained serious head trauma, but all patients were listed as stable, according to Byron Cogdell, a spokesperson for Halifax Medical Center.
The drivers involved in the crashes, including Larson, were treated and released from the track’s infield care center.
Michael Annett, who suffered pain in his chest and sternum after an earlier 13-car accident that red-flagged the race for nearly 20 minutes, was taken to Halifax Medical Center, where he was being treated for bruising on his chest, underwent a CT scan and was to be kept for observation, said Richard Petty Motorsports.
“We’ve always known since racing started, this is a dangerous sport, but it’s hard. . . . We assume that risk, and it’s hard when the fans get caught up in it,” said Stewart, who was driving in the Nationwide race for Richard Childress Racing, the team the late Dale Earnhardt raced for when he was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500
Chitwood said once repairs are made in the fencing overnight, he doesn’t anticipate any problems with fans sitting in the affected area for today’s Daytona 500.
“We had our safety protocols in place,” Chitwood said. “Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area.”
Clearly, the fencing and buffer area weren’t enough to protect the fans from the hail of debris created by Larson’s mangled car, which struck the crossover gate, considered the weakest part of the fence.
The front end of Larson’s demolished car was sheared off its frame. The engine broke loose and was ensnared and dangling in the catch fence, with flames shooting into the air. And parts, including suspension and at least one tire, flew through the openings in the fence.
A YouTube video showed a hail of debris flying into the stands as a man yelled, “Oh, my God.” A tire came to rest on a nearby seat as people started to call out and wave desperately for paramedics.
The jaw-dropping scene prompted some, including three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, to call for immediate change at the venue.
“I think we’re certainly going to have to look at these high-speed racetracks, where these cars run in these packs,” Jarrett said on ESPN Saturday night. “We’re going to have to move the fans back a little. It’s great that they have that access to be right there and see these cars stream by at close to 200 mph, but I think we’re going to have to move them back.
“I think that could be done (today) by re-seating some people that obviously have tickets for that (area). I think that would be a safety measure we could look at.”
Saturday’s final-lap destruction was triggered by Regan Smith, who was leading the race following a green-white-checkered flag finish created by the caution following Annett’s injury.
Smith, a former Sprint Cup driver now in the Nationwide Series, tried blocking Brad Keselowski from overtaking him. Once Keselowski slowed, cars behind him had nowhere to go but into each other, sending Larson into the air.
“I knew Brad was about to make a move,” Smith said. “It’s Daytona, and you want to go for the win here. I hope everybody in the stands is OK. That was the first concern of everyone in the infield care center.
“We got in position to win, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go for it. Brad’s a good friend, and he pushed me to the front, and we both wanted to win the race. You come to the checkered at Daytona, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Nationwide race or an ARCA race, you want to win here.”
Smith said he’d make the same move again, including in today’s Daytona 500.
“If I’m in the position . . . I’ll do the exact same thing,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t play it any different and concede second place. I wasn’t going to do that.”
Larson, 20, seemed almost oblivious to the danger he was in.
“I feel good . . . I know I took a couple of big hits . . . and saw my engine was gone,” Larson said. “We were changing the front a lot of the time . . . so it was a lot of fun today. I was getting pushed from behind. By time my spotter said (anything), it was too late, I was in a wreck. Luckily I was all right and could get out of the car quickly.”
NASCAR president Mike Helton expressed concern for the fans and praised the quick actions by the emergency medical workers.
“Fortunately, with the way the event’s equipped, there was plenty of emergency workers ready to go,” Helton said. “They all jumped on it pretty quickly. There are moments that occur that we’ve just never seen before and can’t really plan for, although everybody’s effort is directed that way, to make it as safe as possible for both competitors and the fans.
“That’s evidenced everywhere we go with the fences, cables, structures, and the gaps between the racetrack and the seating area. We’re always made aware of the fact that we don’t know everything.”
And as Stewart said, there are no easy answers.
“It’s a hard thing for NASCAR,” said Stewart. “There’s no easy solution. They’re doing everything they can to keep this from happening.”
“You want to put on good races, but not at the risk of drivers and fans.”