NASCAR and Daytona officials are both conducting separate examinations of the Kyle Larson crash that injured 28 fans (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
With the threat of lawsuits hanging, in the wake of last weekend's brutal Daytona crash, NASCAR executives are in full battle mode, to figure out just what may have gone wrong when Kyle Larson's airborne Nationwide car ripped down a swatch of safety fencing at Daytona International Speedway, and then to figure out how to fix things.
Following Carl Edward's flying crash at Talladega in 2009, safety fencing at NASCAR tracks was raised and toughened.
One issue with the Larson crash is whether one of his wheel assemblies flew over the fencing or went through the fencing. If it went over -- and the shrapnel sent some 28 fans either local hospitals or track care centers -- then many of NASCAR's safety fences (and there are 23 tracks at least to consider) may have to be raised and modified, perhaps with more overhang.
How quickly such changes could be implemented is difficult to assess, particularly with the possibility of lawsuits complicating things.
Another issue is whether the safety fencing needs to be redesigned somehow. Larson's car appeared to break apart when it hit one of the huge safety stanchions that hold the fencing and heavy cables; was it just a fluke in the way Larson's car hit?
The car did not get into the stands, fortunately, because an incident like that could be devastating to the entire sport.
However the incident appears to be the most serious involving this sport's race fans ever, and the issue of shrapnel in the stands, and hot oils, and flaming gasoline, is a major point, obviously.
With the issue of lawsuits (Here is David Newton's story about one such possibility), NASCAR's traditional stance, like many others, is to keep a case out of the courts, by offering quick settlement, usually with no-comment clauses.
With all that, NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell, the sport's point man on this, reports that all but two fans have been released from the hospital. He repeats NASCAR's safety mantra, and he says he has had several meetings with Daytona track execs.
The two-side approach to this may seem curious, since presumably all Cup tracks must meet NASCAR's own safety standards, which likely presumably are fairly consistent among the sport's many speedways. There is no word of any NASCAR examination of safety fencing at other speedways, though that would seem a logical move in such a situation. Remember the questions about safety fencing at Las Vegas in late 2011 when Dan Weldon was killed in a similar crash, involving Indy-cars.
That's not the only safety issue coming out of Daytona's SpeedWeeks, O'Donnell said. "Michael Annett was injured in a crash.. an injury that we have not seen for some time now. We're going to look through that car."
Annett broke his sternum and required surgery, which has sidelined him.
"That's something we have to take a hard look at, and make sure things worked for Michael," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell calls it "a truly collaborative effort with the goal of doing two things -- obviously looking at what happened in this incident, but more importantly the go?forward plan of what we can learn and what we want to implement."
The Larson car and parts have been "secured by NASCAR."
However O'Donnell says the car remains in Daytona. "The purpose of that was to allow the folks from Daytona and their experts to take a look at the car, see what if anything they could glean from that investigation and apply that to their initial thoughts looking at the fencing," O'Donnell says.
Another possible entanglement could be state laws, Florida and North Carolina, in such accident, and in and possible litigation.
O'Donnell, who said the car will be taken eventually to NASCAR's Concord, N.C., R&D center, pointed out "most of the safety elements in that car did their job. The driver walked away."
However the way the car impacted the fencing will be examined, and there will be a review of the initial fabrication of the car, with the team. The, as in an airplane crash, the car will be pieced back together, for more study, to see how the parts -- roll cage, cockpit, wheel tethers, etc. -- held up.
Safety expert Dr. Dean Sickling and officials at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track with a reputation for trying to stay ahead on safety issues, are being brought in, along with "outside engineering."
O'Donnell said Daytona speedway itself would do a similar project. Just why the need for two, somewhat separate, approaches is curious, particularly since NASCAR and the Daytona track are both owned by the same family.
The upcoming Talladega 500 May 5th is "the first concentration for us," O'Donnell says.
"The second phase is all our tracks."
The Talladega race in eight weeks appears to set the general timetable here.
"If there's something we can find out tonight, we'll apply that," O'Donnell says. "No set timetable.
"But, rest assured, we'll be back to you quickly as we find results and things we can implement."
The wheel assembly that flew high into the grandstands?
"Everything we've seen is it went through," O'Donnell says. "When you look at that car -- the way it pivoted, going into the fence, all four tires are on there. We think it would be impossible for the tire to come back and go back over the fence.
"Everything we've seen so far says it went through that (crossover) gate area.
"We know the gate was locked. We know it was secure, But does that provide as much stability as the rest of the fencing?
"We believed it did.
"But we've got to now take a look at that, based on this impact."
Two other possible issues here -- speed and pack-racing at Daytona and Talladega. The two tracks are the biggest in this sport, but one was designed in the 1950s, when speeds were much lower (140 mph at Daytona, for example), and the other in the 1960s.
While drivers and team owners have long railed about the two tracks being, basically, obsolete, the France family, which owns both, has steadfastly ignored those complaints.
O'Donnell's take? "We've raced there for 55 years. We've had a number of safe races.
"Hopeful this is a one?time incident."