Safety on everyone’s mind at Daytona 500

Raymond Gober parked his motorcycle outside Daytona
International Speedway, climbed off and briefly considered bringing
his helmet into the track.

”I was about to wear it in, but I knew everyone would be
laughing at me,” said Gober, a pastor from outside Atlanta.

Maybe not.

Safety was on everyone’s mind before and during the Daytona 500
on Sunday, a day after a horrific wreck in a second-tier NASCAR
series race hurled chunks of debris, including a heavy tire, into
the stands and injured nearly 30 people.

With small spots of blood still soaked into the concrete seating
area, the accident raised questions about the safety of fans at
race tracks. Should fences be higher and sturdier? Should
grandstands be farther from the track?

NASCAR has long been a big draw because of its thrilling speeds,
tight-knit racing, frantic finishes and the ability to get so close
to the action.

That proximity comes with some risk.

And after Saturday’s 12-car melee on the final lap of the
Nationwide Series opener, some questioned whether that risk
outweighed the reward.

”These are the best seats in the house, but they’re also
dangerous,” Gober said.

Gober was one of thousands of fans who returned to Daytona less
than 24 hours after Kyle Larson’s car flew into the fence, crumbled
into pieces and sprayed parts at spectators.

Early in the 500-mile ”Great American Race,” a nine-car wreck
took out several top contenders.

Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and 2007 race winner
Kevin Harvick were knocked out.

The wreck started when Kasey Kahne let off the gas to slow as
they neared the first turn at Daytona International Speedway – not
too far from Saturday’s near-disaster. Kyle Busch tried to do the
same, but couldn’t avoid contact.

Busch sent Kahne spinning across the track. Juan Pablo Montoya,
2010 race winner Jamie McMurray and defending series champion Brad
Keselowski also were involved.

Thankfully, the wrecking cars stayed on the track. Things would
be considerably different had they done the same Saturday.

”You don’t have time to react, but I just remember thinking,
`This is gonna hurt,”’ said Steve Bradford, of Dade City. ”We
were showered with debris.”

Gober picked up a bolt that landed next to his left foot and
plans to take it home as a souvenir from a crash that could have
considerably worse.

He and Bradford have been coming to races at Daytona for years,
always seeking out scalped tickets so they can get ultra-close to
the cars zooming by at 200 mph.

Now, though?

”Needless to say, we won’t be here next year,” Bradford said –
meaning the seats, not the race.

He pointed at the upper level.

”Next year, we’ll be up there,” he said.

Not everyone felt the same way.

John and Andrea Crawford, of Streetsboro, Ohio, love sitting a
few rows up. They were there Saturday and back again Sunday, just
like so many in that seating section.

The area had rubber marks on seats hit by the tire. Several fans
pointed out a chair bent backward, the spot one man was sitting
when he got pummeled by the 60-pound tire and wheel.

”I’m not nervous,” Andrea Crawford said. ”It doesn’t happen
that much.”

When Rick Barasso arrived at his seats, he noticed a few
reporters and some tire marks. He asked what was going on and then
couldn’t stop smiling as he waved his friends over and shared
details with them.

”These should be good seats,” he said. ”I mean, what are the
chances?”

Maybe small, but there’s little doubt the latest fallout could
prompt NASCAR and track officials to consider changes – at Daytona
and elsewhere.

Daytona has plans to remodel the grandstands. Track President
Joie Chitwood said Saturday’s wreck could prompt sturdier fences or
stands farther from the 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.”

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said Sunday
that things should be done across auto racing. It was just 16
months ago that IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed when his car
crashed into a fence at Las Vegas.

”Maybe we need a double fence, one behind the other, with maybe
a space in between to do something to stop this,” Rutherford said.
”There’s a lot of things. I’m sure NASCAR and the IndyCar series
are looking at everything to make it safer. What happened yesterday
was a terrible thing.

”The drivers, we accept that. That’s part of the game. We have
to roll the dice and move on. But you don’t want to involve the
fans.”

Chitwood said any fans who felt uncomfortable with their
up-close seating for the Daytona 500 could exchange their tickets
for spots elsewhere.

”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.”

Few fans seemed willing to relocate.

”Real NASCAR fans ain’t scared,” said Zeb Daniels, who was
attending his fifth Daytona 500 with his daughter. ”If we see
anything coming to the fence, we’ll hit the floor and pray.”

So why take a chance?

”We come for the thrill, the excitement,” Daniels said. ”We
can feel the heat, the tire rubber in our eyes.”

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