Track officials attend to a damaged section of a crossover gate after Kyle Larson’s car got into the fence during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytonat International Speedway.
This weekend’s dramatic crash in the Grand Prix of Houston was a fresh reminder that no matter how safe racing becomes, there is always room for innovation.
In a split second, Dario Franchitti’s car launched into the air and caught the catch fence. For the most part, the fencing did its job. Franchitti’s mangled machine was sent spinning wildly back onto the track, while fans were kept out of extreme danger.
Debris and a section of the fence were sent flying into the grandstands, with 13 people treated for minor injuries. A fan captured the moment of impact on a dramatic cell phone video.
While Franchitti continues to recover, the incident is a tough reminder that in motorsports, increased safety is a constantly moving target.
Sanctioning bodies across the motorsports world have come a long way in improving nearly every aspect of safety. The cars are safer and drivers are more protected than ever before.
However, the threat of danger still looms over racing. For some, that potential danger is a draw, the reason they race or watch, the thrill that keeps them coming back week after week.
Yet it is the job of each sanctioning body to do all in their power to eliminate that threat of danger. Learning from incidents in the past, advances have been made on many fronts.
One of those fronts continues to be the catch fence separating the action on the track and the fans sitting in the grandstands.
NASCAR has come a long way in its six-decade history when it comes to keeping the action on the track on the track.
When Bobby Allison’s car ripped a large section of fencing away at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987, NASCAR implemented restrictor plates in an attempt to slow down the cars.
After a series of wild wrecks in the late 1980s — including Allison’s — NASCAR introduced roof flaps in the early 1990s to keep cars on the ground in high-speed spins.
Despite all of the advances, cars continued to get airborne and, at times, fly into the catch fence.
In 1993, Neil Bonnett wrecked coming through the tri-oval, rolling up the track and into the fencing. Bonnett’s car was thrown back across the track, with the fence remaining intact. While Bonnett was able to walk away from this incident, he would lose his life the following February in preseason testing at Daytona.
At Talladega in 1996, Ricky Craven drove low through the corner in an attempt to avoid a massive wreck. When he was hit in the right rear, Craven’s car launched up the track, into the fencing, and was thrown back across the track — over the top of many cars sliding and wrecking below.
Geoffrey Bodine had one of the most vicious wrecks in NASCAR history during the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Launching directly into the fencing in the tri-oval, Bodine’s truck burst into flames and began to disintegrate as trucks wrecked all around him. Luckily, the fencing did its job and no one in the stands was injured. Bodine would go on to recover from his injuries and eventually climb back behind the wheel, although on a limited basis.
In 2009 at Talladega, Carl Edwards’ car was sent soaring into the catch fence after he and Brad Keselowski made contact on the final lap. After the rear wheels lifted off the ground, Ryan Newman struck Edwards’ car at over 200 miles per hour. The contact sent the No. 99 flying into the fencing as Keselowski drove off to the win.
Once again, the fencing did its job and kept Edwards’ car inside the track. In this instance, however, debris from the car flew into the grandstands and injured the jaw of a teenage girl.
At Talladega in April 2010, a massive wreck occurred in Turn 4 on the final lap of the Nationwide Series race. As cars were wrecking wildly, the No. 92 of Dennis Setzer rode up the wall and into the fencing. As was the case in Edwards’ incident, Setzer’s car was sent back onto the racing surface and kept from leaving the track.
During the Camping World Truck Series season-opening race at Daytona in 2012, the rear of Joey Coulter’s truck lifted into the air and made contact with the fence exiting the tri-oval. Again, the fence did its job and kept Coulter’s truck on the racing surface.
Most recently, the opening race of the 2013 season for the Nationwide Series saw another vicious wreck coming through the tri-oval. Racing in tandem drafts, the cars were paired up nose-to-tail jockeying for position in the final stretch before the checkered flag.
As Keselowski and Regan Smith began to wreck, Kyle Larson’s car got into the air and the nose made contact with the fence. Larson’s car was thrown back onto the track, but this time debris made its way into the grandstands.
While the fence did its job and kept the car inside the track, Larson’s car made initial contact with a crossover gate. Upon impact, the gate failed. The left front tire assembly and the engine were lodged into the fencing, while the right front tire assembly was sent flying into the stands. While there were fans injured on the scene, all would go on to have complete recoveries.
Following the incident, NASCAR and both Daytona and Talladega made immediate changes to the fencing, particularly the crossover gate sections, in an attempt to reinforce the fence and prevent another failure like the one seen earlier this year.
There is no doubt safety is of upmost concern for NASCAR and every sanctioning body, especially when it comes to the safety of those watching in the stands.
Over the years, NASCAR has come a long way in making advances and those advances have paid off in many ways.
Looking back at Franchitti’s frightening crash Sunday in Houston, there is little doubt IndyCar and track officials will follow up and find improvements.
Just remember, it was not that long ago when cars were flying out of the track — just ask Jimmy Horton.