NASCAR must think safety first with fans

Imagine for a moment a football game, say, the NFC Championship, nationally televised with thousands of fans in attendance. Now imagine that one team scores a touchdown and the celebration spills into the stands, Lambeau Leap-style.

Imagine, then, that a portion of the stadium collapses and 33 people are injured.

Or, if that’s too far-fetched, imagine an NBA playoff game where several big men dive for a loose ball. Imagine them flying over the scoring table and landing in the stands. Now imagine that incident sending a dozen fans to the hospital, leaving two in critical condition.

And if that’s still too much, imagine a Stanley Cup Finals game where two men check another hard into the boards. Imagine the boards shattering and men and debris flying into the stands. Now imagine half-a-dozen stretchers and a helicopter coming in to remove the injured.

Had any one of those fictional scenarios played out, it would have been a lead news story for days. Network anchors would have flown in for live shots of the carnage and there would have been an endless stream of investigations and special reports on “fan safety.” Congress might have even held a hearing or two on the whole thing.

But, to the collective shrugs of the general public, that is exactly what happened in Daytona at the NASCAR Nationwide event.

With drivers bumping and shoving and making their moves on the last lap of the Nationwide Drive 4 COPD 300, Kyle Larson’s car tangled with two others and went airborne, crashing through the catch fence on the speedway’s front stretch. The front half of the car pulverized as debris blew through the most heavily populated spectator area injuring 33 fans, 14 of whom had to be hospitalized.

Two were initially listed in critical condition. One was a child.

Thankfully, no one died and the two most seriously injured were upgraded to stable condition before the end of the weekend. The only adult who remained hospitalized on Monday, 53-year-old Eddie Huckaby of Denton, Texas suffered severe lacerations to his leg but was expected to be released by mid-week.

His brother, Terry, was credited for saving Huckaby’s life by using a belt and shirt as a tourniquet until emergency personnel arrived.

“You gotta realize a wheel — and I’m not talk about a tire, but an entire wheel with a drum and everything — came flying over your head,” Terry Huckaby told the Denton County (Texas) News.

His point was clear: They’re all lucky to be alive.

Slow-motion video and still images proved Huckaby’s point. The crash could have easily been the worst fan disaster in sporting history. Most of the first four rows where Larson’s engine came to rest were empty. That was not the case on Sunday for the Daytona 500. Had the crash occurred then, many more would have been injured. Some might have been killed.

Even with the relatively sparse Saturday crowd, the fact that flying wheels and shards of metal didn’t decapitate or impale anyone seemed nothing short of a miracle.

“We will work with NASCAR and review what happened in terms of the car and the fence,” said Joie Chitwood III, president of International Speedway in Daytona.  “And we’ll learn from that. If there is a better way that we can do things, we will.”

To his credit, Chitwood returned calls and did not duck any question regarding the incident. But he was also quick to point out the upgrades that Daytona had already made.

“In 2009 we had an incident with Carl Edwards going into the fence at the Talladega racetrack (an incident in which seven fans were injured). Following that, we had a structuring engineering firm come in and review all of our fencing. We took every recommendation they gave us and we rebuilt the fence at Daytona International Speedway for 2010.

“We will take a look at this, see what occurred, and if there are ways that we can do better, we will. We have shown people, after the ’09 incident that we are willing to do that and it’s the right thing to do. So, for us, it’s about what happened and what can we do to get better.  We don’t have a timetable yet for that process, but we’ll get with NASCAR and start that review.”

Chitwood has his hands full on the PR front, not only because of those who were hospitalized, but also because NASCAR attempted to block all fan-generated video from the Internet. The embargo, such as it was, lasted less than 24 hours and was initiated, according to NASCAR officials, “out of respect for the victims.”

“We have been in business for 55 years, and I think we have a good reputation for providing a safe experience for our fans,” Chitwood said. “We will continue this process and make sure we get better.”

Perhaps the crash and subsequent injures didn’t generate more shock because risks are expected in racing. In addition to the 2009 Talladega incident, in February, 2010, 52-year-old Sue Zimmer of Rice Lakes, Wisc. was killed at the Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix when a tire flew off a dragster and struck her in the head. And in August of 2012, one fan was killed and 10 others hospitalized after being struck by lightning during a rain delay of the Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

Research studies have put the number of fan fatalities at all U.S. racetracks in the last 20 years – including drag strips, dirt tracks, and Saturday night ovals – at between 45 and 50. Some, like the lightning strikes, are beyond anyone’s ability to foresee. But the general public finds the engagement with flying car parts to be unsettling.

The crash in Daytona was not an anomaly. If anything, last-lap wrecks have become the norm at super-speedways where cars travel in packs and draft off each other until the final seconds. Not only were fans expecting a pileup on Saturday, if you look at the amateur videos, some were actually cheering until they realized that wheels and sheet metal were flying their way.

It’s part of the package, like being in a video game. The closer fans get to the action, the better they like it, until the safety barriers give way and the realities of a 190-mph crash go whizzing past their heads.

Hardcore NASCAR fans will look at this wreck along with the sports’ overall safety record and say: “Heck yeah, let’s go racin’.”

But the casual fan, the one who had considers NASCAR a possible family entertainment option along with bowling, canoeing, or day tripping to a park, might think twice.

For that person, fan experience is one thing. Fan injury is something else, entirely.