Kyle Larson's car rips down frontstretch grandstand fencing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
It is the most frightening thing that can happen in racing -- a car heading toward the grandstands at nearly 200 mph.
And that's just what happened here in the final moments of Saturday's Nationwide 300 during a furious battle for the victory.
It one of the most frightening crashes in recent Daytona history -- Kyle Larson's flying car ripping down about 10 yards of frontstretch grandstand safety fencing when he got airborne near the trioval finish line. Twelve cars were involved. No drivers were injured, but initial reports are that at least 28 fans were injured.
Larson's engine -- flaming -- and wheels wound up on the grandstand side of the fence, on the concrete walkway just in front of the seats. How much debris actually got into the stands and what the injuries to fans might be was not immediately clear. However the area near the start-finish line is always jammed near the end of a race with cameramen and others watching closely. Drivers involved reported no problems after being checked at the infield care center. Track officials said 14 fans were taken to various nearby hospitals and another 14 were attended to by safety medical people at the track.
How high debris might have flown was also not immediately clear. One of Larson's wheels could be seen flying into the stands about 10 rows up. That wheel apparently hit a fan; his injuries were not immediately known At least one fan was reported in critical condition, apparently after being hit by a tire and wheel assembly, which weighs well over 100 pounds.
The crash was the lead story on NBC, CBS and ABC national evening newscasts.
The race will undoubtedly raise again the pointed safety questions that drivers themselves have had about having to race in big packs at Daytona and Talladega.
Daytona safety workers quick to the scene (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The incident was eerily similar to Bobby Allison's 1987 crash at Talladega, when his car also got airborne and ripped down a huge section of the safety fencing. Allison's crash triggered the current speed-cutting carburetor restrictor plates that are used at Daytona and Talladega, the sport's two fastest tracks. That crash, and later crashes, led track owners to add heavy restraining cables and thicker fencing, to protect fans. Allison's crash tore down nearly 100 feet of fencing.
Saturday's crash also revived memories of Geoff Bodine's fiery crash here in 2000: Geoff Bodine's Daytona crash
It also brought to mind Carl Edwards' crash at Talladega in 2009, when Edwards was dueling Keselowski for the win: Carl Edwards' Talladega crash
After Edwards' crash, remember what he said: "I'm glad the car didn't go up in the grandstands and hurt somebody. NASCAR put us in this box and we will race this way (with restrictor plates and in packs) until they kill somebody. Then they'll change it."
Seven fans were injuried in the Edwards crash, none seriously.
A big hole in the grandstand safety fence, with Kyle Larson's engine and front wheel suspension on the fan side of the barrier. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Reaction from track officials and NASCAR spokesmen finally came about 7 p.m. ET, in a brief press conference. Track president Joie Chitwood declined to discuss the medical condition of injured fans. Daytona 500 seating will not be changed, Chitwood said. NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell said "We'll evaluate the fencing, and we'll look at the car. The safety of our fans is first and foremost."
The scary wreck occurred during a wide-open green-white-checkered battle for the win. Leader Regan Smith and challenger Brad Keselowski tangled during a block as they approached the checkered flag.
Tony Stewart got the win. Smith went nose-first into the outside wall. A dozen or so cars were involved. The crash occurred at the head of the pack.
Smith and Keselowski had worked well together through the race, on a hot, 87-degree afternoon at Daytona International Speedway. Coming off the last turn Keselowski made a move to pass, and Smith moved to block, and the two crashed.
Larson's car got launched into the grandstand fencing, which ripped the car apart.
NASCAR track safety fencing features heavy steel cables designed to keep a fly car from getting through. The cables, however, are bolted together at certain points, and the 'intrusion' here Saturday appeared to be close to a cross-over gate, which could possibly be a weak link, though that is not clear. O'Donnell did mention the cross-over gate area as possibly needing study. The remarkably brief press conference did not include questions about that point.
Injured fans en route to the hospital or care center. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It was thus a very subdued post-race session.
"We've always known this was a dangerous sport," Stewart said. "But we assume that risk. It's hard when the fans get caught up in it. As much as we want to celebrate, I'm more worried about the fans in the stands. I could see it all in the mirror, and it didn't look good."
Keselowski: "Hoping everyone in the grandstand is okay. That's really important to us in the sport.
"Regan and I had worked well together. I wanted to make the winning move; he threw a block, that's his right. And that led to the chain of events that started the wreck."
Smith: "It's Daytona and you want to go for the win.
"Got in position to win. Brad is a good friend; he pushed me to the front. We were both trying to win the race.
"I don't know how you can do anything different unless you want to concede to second place. If I'm in the same situation tomorrow, I'll do the same thing again."
Larson: "I know I took a bunch of big hits, and my engine is gone.
"I was getting pushed (in the tight draft), and by the time my spotter said lift, I was already in the wreck. Saw some flames in the cockpit but I was able to get out okay."
Kyle Larson looks at the remains of his car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Daytona crew repairing grandstand fencing after Saturday's crash, for Sunday's Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)