DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Fans came to Daytona Int’l Speedway Saturday hoping to see an exciting race and a great finish. They didn’t expect to see fellow spectators injured, support cables severed, a burning engine on the grandstand side of the fence or a tire sail over the fence about 20 rows up into the grandstands.
At least 28 spectators were injured in the last-lap crash with 14 spectators transported to two area hospitals. Two of the spectators are in critical condition with one potentially life-threatening. Another injured spectator is a small child.
Tony Stewart won the race.
Regan Smith got a push to the lead from Keselowski but got turned heading toward the checkered flag. With cars flying airborne Stewart took the checkered flag. Rookie driver Kyle Larson’s car was snapped in two at the firewall and one car sailed into the catchfence sending debris into the crowd, ripping the fencing off the poles and mangling those poles.
The engine from Larson’s car went on the other side of the fence and was burning from the impact as security officials tried to make sure spectators were kept away from the carnage and tended to the injured.
“First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans,” said Daytona Int’l Speedway President Joie Chitwood, III. “Following the incident we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols, and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately. We transported 14 people off property and treated 14 people at our on track care center. We’re in the process of repairing the facility and will be ready to go racing tomorrow.
“I’d have to refer you to Halifax for any conditions of the patients. It’s not appropriate for me to comment on that.
“At this point as we responded to the incident, we transported immediately those patients that needed critical assistance. We’ll review ourselves in terms of where the debris flew and what we need to do with that. But it was the grandstands immediately outside of the fence where the car hit.”
Track workers were repairing the damage well into the night to ensure the safety and integrity of the fence for Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500.
“At this point after every event, we review our property, but from an asphalt and fencing perspective,” Chitwood said. “So we did that after our Duels and the truck race, we’ll do the same thing to make sure that we’re ready for tomorrow. As a property that has been here for over 55 years, we make sure we make the right investments in our property. The only changes that will occur with the fencing that goes back, we will not have time to put the crossover gate that was there, so it will be strictly fencing for tomorrow.
“We don’t anticipate moving any of our fans. We had our safety protocols in place. Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area. With the fencing being prepared tonight to our safety protocols, we expect to go racing tomorrow with no changes.”
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell said a thorough review will be conducted with all tracks to try to prevent such a calamity from happening in the future.
“I think we look at this after every incident,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve learned in the past certain protocols put in place today are a result of prior incidents. Again, our initial evaluation is still ongoing. But it’s certainly something we’ll look at. If we can improve upon it, we’ll certainly put that in play as soon as we can.
“We’re really early in what we’ve seen. Some of the things we have in place, tethers, that sort of thing, held up did their job. But certainly when you look at this incident, there are some things we can learn and evaluate. We’ll take the car, we’ll do that. We’ll evaluate the fencing and see if there’s anything we can learn from where gates are.
“I think we need to take the time to really study it and see what we can improve on. If we can, certainly the safety of our fans is first and foremost and we’ll make that happen.”
NASCAR President Mike Helton stressed that in his opinion the catchfence prevented what could have been even more spectators from being injured.
“Right now we are trying to determine what happened,” Helton said. “The catchfence did its job. We know what we know but the biggest thing is we don’t know everything we need to know. We are trying to make it as safe as possible for the competitors and the fans.
“We’re always aware of the fact that we don’t know everything.”
The second-tier series of NASCAR is supported by an insurance company — Nationwide — which issued a statement late Saturday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the fans and their loved ones who were affected by today’s incident,” said Matt Jauchius, chief marketing officer for Nationwide Insurance. We would like to commend NASCAR, Daytona Int’l Speedway and the medical personnel involved for their quick response to the situation.”
For race winner Stewart, his 19th career victory at Daytona Int’l Speedway was not a cause for any celebration.
“Not really,” Stewart said. “It’s just like your fellow drivers. If you think one of your fellow drivers is injured, you just don’t feel like you can celebrate. These fans are diehard to this sport and the drivers. They come to watch a great show. The last thing you want to do is have any of them get caught up in a wreck that happens on the race track.
“There were a lot of them that were involved today. Really won’t be any celebrating until I find out hopefully everybody’s all right. Until then, we’re more worried about what’s going on with the EMTs and the fans that were involved versus what we did here.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen where the hole in the fence was. But I’ve climbed up that fence, and I know that that’s about — at Daytona here, that’s about as safe a fence as you’re going to get. It’s constructed right. As much safety stuff involved as you can get up there. I can promise you, it had to be one heck of an impact for it to do the damage it did today.”