Daytona 500 runs on schedule, day after fans hurt

Fans feeling unsafe after the terrifying crash at Daytona

International Speedway a day earlier were able to change seats for

NASCAR’s biggest race on Sunday.

Workers successfully repaired a section of fence – 54 feet wide

and 22 feet high – that was shredded Saturday when Kyle Larson’s

car went airborne on the final lap of a second-tier race and

crashed through the barrier that separates cars from fans. Large

pieces of debris, including a tire, sprayed into the upper and

lower section of the stands.

The crash the day before the Daytona 500 injured more than 30

people, raising more questions about fan safety at race tracks.

Halifax Health spokesman Byron Cogdell said seven people with

crash-related injuries remained hospitalized in Daytona Beach in

stable condition. The six people brought to a different Halifax

hospital in Port Orange with crash-related injuries had all been

discharged, Cogdell said.

A spokeswoman at Florida Memorial Medical Center would not

release information on the patients brought to that hospital.

Track President Joie Chitwood, meanwhile, said if any fans are

uncomfortable with their up-close seating for the Daytona 500,

officials would work to move them.

”If fans are unhappy with their seating location or if they

have any incidents, we would relocate them,” Chitwood said. ”So

we’ll treat that area like we do every other area of the

grandstand. If a fan is not comfortable where they’re sitting, we

make every accommodation we can.”

There were several wrecks during the Daytona 500, though nothing

that put fans in danger. Jimmie Johnson won the race for the second

time.

Larry Spencer of Nanticoke, Pa., said he wasn’t sure if he wants

to ever sit that low again after his 15-year-old brother, Derrick,

needed three stitches in his cheek after being hit by metal debris

flying from Saturday’s crash. A day after sitting close to the

fence, they returned with tickets dozens of rows farther away from

the track.

”I thought it was just neat to see the cars going by that

close,” Spencer said. ”After yesterday, though, I definitely will

reconsider sitting lower ever again.”

The tire that flew into the stands landed a couple of rows above

where they had been standing. After the crash, looking around at

the people seriously injured, Spencer said he decided to take his

brother to a hospital himself so that speedway crews and paramedics

could focus on the people who needed more help.

”The only way to describe it was like a bomb went off, and the

car pretty much exploded,” Spencer said.

Track workers finished repairs about 2 a.m. Sunday, having

installed a new fence post, new metal meshing and part of the

concrete wall.

Officials decided not to rebuild the collapsed cross-over gate,

which allows fans to travel between the stands and the infield

before races.

Daytona has a grandstand remodel planned. Chitwood said the

injuries could prompt a redesign that might include sturdier fences

or stands further away from the on-track action.

”It’s tough to connect the two right now in terms of a

potential redevelopment and what occurred,” Chitwood said. ”We

were prepared yesterday, had emergency medical respond. As we learn

from this, you bet: If there are things that we can incorporate

into the future, whether it’s the current property now or any other

redevelopment, we will.

”The key is sitting down with NASCAR, finding out the things

that happened and how we deal with them.”

Daytona reexamined its fencing and ended up replacing the entire

thing following Carl Edwards’ scary crash at Talladega

Superspeedway in Alabama in 2009. Edwards’ car sailed into the

fence and spewed debris into the stands.

”We’ve made improvements since then,” Chitwood said. ”I think

that’s the key: that we learn from this and figure out what else we

need to do.”

NASCAR plans to take what remained of Larson’s sheared car along

with debris back to its research and development center in

Charlotte, N.C., for testing.

”We’ll bring in the best and brightest,” said Steve O’Donnell,

NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing operations. ”Anything we

can learn will be put in place. … Fans are our first priority.

Obviously we want everybody to be safe at an event. We’ve talked to

the speedway. We’re confident in what’s in place at today’s event.

Certainly still thinking about those affected, but we’re confident

to move forward for this race.”

The 12-car crash began as the front-runners approached the

checkered flag. Leader Regan Smith attempted to block Brad

Keselowski for the win, triggering a pileup that could have been

much worse.

Larson’s burning engine wedged through a gaping hole in the

fence. Parts and pieces of his car sprayed into the stands,

including a tire that cleared the top of the fence and landed

midway up the spectator section closest to the track.

The 20-year-old Larson stood in shock a few feet from his car as

fans in the stands waved frantically for help. Smoke from the

burning engine briefly clouded the area, and emergency vehicles

descended on the scene.

Ambulance sirens could be heard wailing behind the grandstands

at a time the race winner would typically be doing celebratory

burnouts.

”It was freaky. When I looked to my right, the accident

happened,” Rick Harpster of Orange Park said. ”I looked over and

I saw a tire fly straight over the fence into the stands, but after

that I didn’t see anything else. That was the worst thing I have

seen, seeing that tire fly into the stands. I knew it was going to

be severe.”

In 1987, Bobby Allison’s car lifted off the track at Talladega

while running over 200 mph, careening into the steel-cable fence

and scattering debris into the crowd. That crash led to the use of

horsepower-sapping restrictor plates at Talladega and its sister

track in Daytona, NASCAR’s fastest layouts.

As a result, the cars all run nearly the same speed, and the

field is typically bunched tightly together – which plenty of

drivers have warned is actually a more dangerous scenario than

higher speeds.

”That’s one of the things that really does scare you,” Allison

said. ”But it’s always a possibility because of the speeds, where

they are.”

Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to

this report.

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