NASCAR barely dodged a major disaster on Saturday.
How long the sport continues to remain so lucky in regard to the safety of its fans, however, remains to be seen.
The closing laps of the second-tier Nationwide Series season opener had already seen one major 13-car crash that sent driver Michael Annett to the hospital with chest injuries (where he was kept overnight Saturday for observation).
That, unfortunately, was just a prelude to what occurred at the checkered flag.
Tony Stewart came out of Turn 4 with the lead while being followed by a dozen other drivers jockeying for final position.
Regan Smith was attempting to block defending NASCAR Cup champion Brad Keselowski. One of the cars got sideways, triggering another massive wreck.
In the process, the #32 car of Kyle Larson got airborne and wound up going head-first into the catch-fence just before the flag stand at the start-finish line. Ultimately, both front tires and the entire front end, including the engine, went through the turnbuckles that held up the crossover gate, which helps to separate the race track from the seating area.
ESPN stayed on air to update the situation, showing mostly general views of the carnage. Already running over its allotted time (the red flag from the previous wreck lasted 20 minutes), the broadcast wound up preempting the entire first half of the North Carolina State-North Carolina basketball game.
Race-winner Tony Stewart and his crew elected to not hold a celebration in Victory Lane as the infield area became populated with numerous rescue vehicles. Meanwhile, various accounts were being reported by fans and the NASCAR media via social media, noting how several injured people were being backboarded and stretchered off into waiting ambulances.
This is what was known as of Saturday night:
- At least 33 fans in all were injured.
- Many of the spectators drove to hospitals on their own after the race.
- Six spectators were admitted with serious injuries and were classified as “trauma patients.”
- Two fans were initially listed in critical condition, one being a child. One of the two critically injured patients was classified as having “life-threatening” injuries, but both have been upgraded to stable condition.
Meanwhile, NASCAR announced that the Daytona 500 will be run as scheduled on Sunday.
A couple of observations…
First off, thank whatever spiritual being you choose to believe in that this was the Nationwide event and not the Daytona 500. NASCAR should also feel lucky that the freak Juan Pablo Montoya v jet dryer crash/inferno last year did not occur near a seating area.
Since the Nationwide race was far from being a sell-out, the first dozen rows of the grandstand (which are traditionally the toughest sell) were sparsely populated. Had those seats been packed, like they would had been for a Cup event, there would have been several fatalities at minimum.
In the aftermath of the Nationwide finish, NASCAR attempted to not only block the ESPN race broadcast from being uploaded onto YouTube, but also the cellphone videos of fans in the section that was hit with the debris. Technically, NASCAR “owns” the copyright on everything that occurs inside track property even if not the network broadcast.
Those clips still wound up being shown on various websites and blogs. On this site (if it’s still up), you can see the situation unfold in surreal fashion.
The video begins with the in-house audio from MRN Radio clearly being heard as the cars moved from Turn 3 into Turn 4 and towards the finish line. Normal cheering can be heard as the crash starts, then the debris showering the spectators.
The camera stays fixed on the section, while another spectator with a phone actually pans to the right. Fans start to ask each other if they’re okay while others start waving for help.
The video ends with what appears to be a fan being attended to with the tire sitting on a seat immediately to the left. The tire, which cleared the fence, wound up one row behind and three seats to the left of the camera, approximately eight rows up from the track. Some debris reportedly went much farther, even into the upper deck.
With the entire front gone from his car, Kyle Larson immediately was able to climb out of what was left of his machine, and all the other drivers involved in the incident were uninjured as well. That is in itself a testament to the amazing safety changes the sport has made in protecting its drivers over the past decade. There have been even more spectacular crashes in recent years where the drivers all miraculously walked away.
A tip of the hat also goes out to the rescue personnel and first responders at the scene, who were already trained on how to deal with such events in a professional manner.
The real question, however, is how to make NASCAR’s largest and fastest tracks – Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Speedway – safer.
By the mid 1980s, speeds had exceeded 200 MPH consistently at the two high-banked, 2 ½ mile+ venues. The final straw came when a car went airborne and nearly flew into the stands at a race in Talladega, the flash-point where NASCAR realized something must be done.
Since that point, what became known as “restrictor plates” were inserted in front of the engines of the cars. It has now been a necessity of racing at Daytona and Talladega for a quarter-century.
The end result is cars that will only go 190 MPH at their fastest. The trade-off is an event with three dozen+ cars going virtually at an identical speed and drafting off each other in packs in order to gain the crucial 2-3 MPH extra, or being quickly left behind.
Most events at Talladega and Daytona go most of the distance without incident, as competitors remain patient until the race nears the end. The final laps at the two restrictor plate tracks are now possibly the most exciting moments in sports ,,, but also the most terrifying – as noted in several Daytona 500 finishes in recent years.
In 2009 Brad Keselowski (who ironically was a principle in Saturday’s incident) sent Carl Edwards into the fence at the end of the Talladega race, likewise sending debris into the stands and causing several injuries. The day after that race, esteemed Charlotte-based writer David Poole wrote an impassioned column that NASCAR must find a way to make racing safer not only for the participants but also for those buying tickets.
Among drivers, Tony Stewart has been the most vocal over the years speaking out against the inevitable carnage that occurs on the plate tracks.
The only possible solutions are ones that stock car racing fans might not like. By far the four most dangerous events out of the 36-race Cup schedule are Daytona and Talladega. You could remove those races from the schedule.
But that would mean no Daytona 500.
You could also remove all, or at least most, of the banking off of the two tracks. In essence that would result in turning Daytona and Talladega into Indianapolis and Pocono, which are both flat, 2 ½ mile tracks. The annual races at Pocono and the Brickyard (which are better suited for the open-wheeled cars) are traditionally the most drab on the NASCAR calendar.
Or, Daytona and Talladega could somehow be reconfigured to 2 mile ovals, the distances currently run at California and Michigan, without the cars going too far beyond 190-200 MPH.
They could also just take off the plates and let cars go 230-240 MPH at their own peril. Many have argued that it would actually make the event safer. Indy Car events have gotten to that speed with mixed results, as the G-Forces at those speeds can become unsafe. There was, of course, the fatal accident involving Dan Wheldon in a season-ending race at Las Vegas in 2011.
Another change that would mitigate the danger somewhat is a concept NASCAR introduced several years ago in response to criticism of races reaching their advertised distance under caution: the “green-white checkered flag.” This ensured a race running for two laps after the end of the regulation laps scheduled. NASCAR then even tweaked the new policy to allow three attempts at a “green-white-checkered” finish.
I’m fine with the format – except at Daytona/Talladega. I would rather see a race finish under caution than a race that ends with numerous drivers and fans in potential harm’s way. It should be noted, however, that Saturday’s race was completed in the regulation 120 laps. Tt was not a “green-white-checker.”
In addition, race tracks could also not sell tickets for the first ten rows, maybe even adding a second fence behind the first, although that would further obstruct some views. Attendance would be plenty high enough at Daytona without selling the tickets in the first few rows.
NASCAR drivers and crewman know very well the dangers of their profession, and the risk of injury or even death each time they get behind the wheel. They signed up for it, and many drivers in all forms of motorsport have paid the price throughout the decades.
Fans are another matter. If just once an entire car somehow made it over a fence and actually landed on spectators, NASCAR would be finished as a business and as a sport.
Hopefully the Daytona 500 will be run without further incident. I’m sure NASCAR will breathe a huge sigh of relief it that’s the case.