Daytona Beach, Florida: The risks of racing extend beyond the drivers. Fans can wind up in the danger zone, too.
A horrifying crash on the last lap of a race at Daytona International Speedway injured at least 30 fans on Saturday and provided another stark reminder of what can happen when a car going nearly 200 mph is suddenly launched toward the spectator areas.
The victims were sprayed with large chunks of debris - including a tire - after rookie Kyle Larson’s machine careened into the fencing that is designed to protect the massive grandstands lining Nascar’s most famous track.
“I love the sport,” said Shannan Devine, who witnessed the carnage from her 19th-row seat, about 250 feet away. “But no one wants to get hurt over it.”
The fencing served its primary purpose, catapulting what was left of Larson’s car back onto the track. But it didn’t keep potentially lethal shards from flying into the stands.
“There was absolute shock,” Devine said. “People were saying, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen this happen, I’ve never seen this happen. Did the car through the fence?’ It was just shock and awe. Grown men were reaching out and grabbing someone, saying, ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!’ It was just disbelief, absolute disbelief.”
From Daytona to Le Mans to a rural road in Ireland, auto racing spectators have long been too close to the action when parts start flying. The crash in the second-tier Nationwide race follows a long list of accidents that have left fans dead or injured.
The most tragic incident occurred during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, when two cars collided near the main stands. The wreck sent debris hurtling into the crowd, while one of the cars flipped upside down and exploded in a giant fireball.
Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh were killed, and 120 fans were injured.
The Daytona crash began as the field approached the checkered flag and leader Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski. That triggered a chain reaction, and rookie Kyle Larson hit the cars in front of him and went airborne into the fence.
The entire front end was sheared off Larson’s car, and his burning engine wedged through a gaping hole in the fence. Chunks of debris from the car were thrown into the stands, including a tire that cleared the top of the fence and landed midway up the spectator section closest to the track.
“I thought the car went through the fence,” Devine said. “I didn’t know if there was a car on top of people. I didn’t know what to think. I’m an emotional person. I immediately started to cry. It was very scary, absolutely scary. I love the speed of the sport. But it’s so dangerous.”
Workers scurried to patch up the damaged fencing and left little doubt that the biggest race of the weekend, Sunday’s Daytona 500, would go on as planned.
Lenny Brown, who witnessed the crash from his 38th-row seat in the Petty grandstand, said he would be back in the same section for the season-opening Sprint Cup event. He has no qualms about his safety, sitting so high up, but he would think twice about the seats he had for the race two years ago.
“The last time I was here, we were only about six rows up,” Brown said. “I had even told some people before the crash, ‘I would never sit that close to the track ever again.’”
But someone surely will - mindful of the risks but eager to be among more than 100,000 fans cheering on stock car racing’s biggest stars.
“Here we are, playing money to sit next to cars going 195 mph,” Devine said. “We do it because we love it. That’s what we expect.”