Once again, NASCAR’s fans and leaders had reason to gasp.
At 2:41 a.m. Monday, in the final lap of a race at Daytona, Austin Dillon’s car hit a competitor’s and then went airborne, slamming into the fence that’s designed to protect fans.
The safety fence kept the car out of the stands, and Dillon walked away with only bruises. But debris from the crash – including what appeared to be pieces of car paneling – flew through the fence. Four fans were treated for injuries by track medics; one was transported to the hospital.
In that concluding lap, fans got many of the things they hope for: a close finish and a close-up look at some of NASCAR’s finest bump and grind.
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“They came here to see some crazy wild stuff and we are going to give it to them,” driver Jeff Gordon said after the race.
NASCAR’s leaders have struggled for years to ride a tricky line: keeping the excitement in racing while keeping fans and drivers safe. Now, they say, they have begun examining Monday’s crash with an eye toward making changes.
Safety experts interviewed by the Observer Monday offered three suggestions about how NASCAR’s leaders could better protect fans:
1 Move fans back
Experts and drivers say many tracks would be wise to remove the bottom rows of seats – even if it cuts attendance and revenue.
That lesson, they say, was reinforced in February 2013, when a crash at Daytona International Speedway tore a hole in the safety fence and sent debris – including a wheel – careening into the frontstretch grandstand. More than 30 race fans were injured.
Dillon’s car slammed into a nearby section of the catch fence.
“The safest thing is to not have any people sitting right there where we typically crash,” driver Denny Hamlin said following Monday morning’s wreck.
“They have an option to maybe do that now – only have upper level seats in that area. That’s right at the start-finish line, that’s right where all these race fans want to be when their favorite driver wins the race. It’s a tough balance.”
Larry McReynolds, former Sprint Cup Series crew chief and NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports, says tracks should consider moving fans back.
“A bit of a buffer zone between the catch fence and seats would be a good thing,” said McReynolds.
Earlier safety changes made by NASCAR probably helped Dillon walk away from Monday’s wreck, McReynolds noted.
2 Add another barrier
Like most NASCAR tracks, Daytona protects its fans with a chain-link fence, reinforced by strong steel cables.
Daytona strengthened its catch fence after the February 2013 crash, and that fence kept Dillon’s car out of the stands. But it couldn’t shield spectators from some of the debris that flew off the car.
In the most vulnerable areas, experts say, tracks might be wise to install another barrier behind the catch fence. It could be made from Lexan – the ultra-strong transparent plastic used in NASCAR windshields, said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Because grime would accumulate as races progress, Wheeler said, the challenge would be to keep the plastic clean so fans can see clearly.
“I think every good track operator knows his first responsibility is to protect the spectator,” Wheeler said. “It’s things like this (crash) that bring about innovation.”
Safety expert Sam Gualardo said Daytona’s current catch fence “is not doing its job.”
“Fans should not have to go to a race and ever risk being injured while enjoying something that they love,” said Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, a group that has examined ways to make racing safer.
3 Separate the cars
Dr. Steve Olvey, a longtime racing safety expert, says NASCAR rules often create a problem: large numbers of cars bunching together as they approach the finish line.
“All it takes is one little mistake to set off a major crash,” said Olvey, a board member of the International Council for Motorsport Sciences, a group working to improve racing safety. “… It’s kind of a crap shoot.”
While some have called for changes to slow cars on super speedways, Olvey says that’s not the problem. Current rules – which restrict horsepower – essentially allow less skilled drivers keep up with the elite drivers, Olvey contends.
Spectators would continue to get plenty of excitement if only the best drivers were close together at the finish line, he said.
Staff Writer Jim Utter contributed.