For the third time since 2012, NASCAR finds itself dealing with the aftermath of fans injured as a result of a wreck at its premier racing venue – Daytona International Speedway.
Moments after Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag shortly before 3 a.m. Monday in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400, a multi-car accident erupted behind him that sent Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet airborne and into the fencing on the frontstretch that separates the grandstands from the track surface.
The car tore a large section of the fencing down and badly mangled his car, leaving its engine and car parts strewn across the track and grass infield.
Debris from Dillon’s car flew into the stands, injuring at least five fans and sending one to a local hospital, track officials said.
There were no serious injuries and Dillon came away unscathed but for a bruised tailbone and forearm.
NASCAR officials said Monday they were very early in the process of deconstructing the accident and evaluating potential changes.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France, in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said, “We’re hard at work on that crash and sorting out what are the best options we have in front of us with technology and innovation to make things better. The work has already begun on that.
"An accident like last night takes your breath away and it should. We’re working on better solutions all the time to make racing safer and better."
Since 2012, nearly 40 fans – some seriously – have been injured at Daytona as a result of crashes near the end of races that sent vehicles into the fencing and debris into the grandstands.
In February 2012, Joey Coulter’s truck crashed into the frontstretch fencing, which resulted in two fans receiving injuries from debris.
In February 2013, more than 30 fans were injured when Kyle Larson’s car was sent airborne and into the catchfence, resulting in car parts and at least one tire assembly flying into the stands. Fourteen fans were treated at a local hospital.
Following the 2013 incident, Daytona and several other tracks in NASCAR reinforced their fencing. Daytona is in the midst of more expansive renovations – nicknamed "Daytona Rising" – which have included additional safety changes.
"You know, obviously through the last couple years, we’ve learned a lot, whether it’s fencing or the facility itself in terms of enhancements," said track president Joie Chitwood III.
"One of the elements of the project of ‘Daytona Rising’ was no longer having fans or individuals on ‘rim road’ and closing off the grandstands on the front row, so those were in the new sections, and that was what was in place, and I think it did a very good job."
Even more changes could be on the horizon following Monday morning’s wreck but some drivers question how many times incidents like Monday’s have to take place.
"This isn’t the first time that has happened here and it is just dumb that we allow it to happen more than once," said driver Joey Logano.
Denny Hamlin, who was in the middle of the group of cars where the wreck originated, said removing fans from the danger zone may be the only viable solution.
"The catchfence kept the car inside the race track. I’m not sure what else we could really do about it," he said.
"It’s those freak incidents that happen and really the only thing you can do without making crazy, wholesale changes is don’t sell seats at the lower level right at the start-finish line."
Monday’s incident was the latest in a growing list of those involving fans at race tracks.
In April 2009, seven fans at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway were treated for injuries when Carl Edwards’ car went airborne and struck the frontstretch fence.
From 1990 to 2010, at least 46 spectators died at U.S. race tracks, an Observer analysis found.
Nine were hit and killed by flying tires. The spectator deaths took place at all levels of U.S. racing, from big ovals and short tracks to drag strips and off-road courses.
In 1999, three fans were killed when a wreck caused a tire to fly into the grandstand at an IndyCar Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That accident prompted track officials to raise the catch fence from 15 to 21 feet. It also led to a rule that "tethers" tires to the body of the race car in the IndyCar series.
The violent nature of Monday’s wreck and the potential tragedy that was averted left Earnhardt visibly shaken in its aftermath while he was attempting to celebrate his second Sprint Cup Series victory of the season.
"I’ve never really seen a roll cage handle those catchfences very well, and I just was very scared for whoever that was. I didn’t even know what car it was, so I was just very scared for that person," Earnhardt said in describing the accident that unfolded behind him.
"Obviously you think about the car getting that high, what has it done to the catchfence and is there any danger to the spectators. It was just real scary."