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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