But wrecks like the one Saturday on the last lap of a Nationwide Series race at the famed Daytona International Speedway are a reminder that although race organizers have taken great leaps to make stock car racing much less dangerous, the act of slamming a car into a fence at 180 miles per hour can never be unequivocally safe.
That no drivers were injured during the dozen-car pileup — at the same track where Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001 — is a testament to the safety measures (such as restrictor plates and improved head protection for drivers) that have been implemented over the past decade or so. But that the wreck reportedly injured at least 28 spectators and sent at least 11 to the hospital raises an even larger issue.
Take a look at this video, shot with a cell phone camera from the crowd.
That the first row of bleachers sits about 10 feet from the track’s final corner is an issue in itself, but the video also shows fans standing right up along the protective fencing as Kyle Larson‘s No. 32 car rips through the barrier and sends debris — including a tire, scraps of metal and the car’s engine — flying into the seats. Luckily, a capacity crowd had not turned out to see the opener for Sunday’s Sprint Cup main event. Had this happened a day later, the aftermath may have been much worse.
Allowing spectators to stand literally feet away from machines traveling at such a high velocity is a recipe for disaster. Even if Larson’s bumper hadn’t punctured the chain-link surrounding the track, anyone standing near the point of impact would still be highly exposed to all sorts of flying debris — much of it heated to high temperatures.
But, despite the inherent danger, fans will always try to get as close as they can to the action. It’s time for NASCAR to take away this temptation and move seats and viewing areas at all points around the track back to a safer distance. Spectators will still be able to see the wreckage unfold without the danger of becoming part of it.
Tony Stewart, who slipped by the carnage to take home the checkered flag, summed up the sentiments of the drivers in a shaken post-race interview.
“We’ve always known since racing was started this was a dangerous sport, but we assume that risk, and it’s hard when the fans get caught up in it,” he said.
As tragic Earnhardt’s death was to the sports world, it provided the catalyst for NASCAR to revamp its safety procedures in hopes that such a devastating accident would never happen again. Hopefully, Saturday’s events will trigger similar reform.