After a NASCAR Nationwide race ended with a massive accident that left more than two dozen fans injured on Saturday, the safety of racing on superspeedways is back in the spotlight.
On the final lap of Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300, Regan Smith tangled with Brad Keselowski on the sprint to the finish line, starting a chain-reaction accident that involved 12 drivers.
In the crash, rookie Kyle Larson's Chevy spun up the concrete wall at the Daytona International Speedway and into the fence surrounding the racing surface. The fence did its job, but the impact broke the car apart, sending a tire and shrapnel-like bits of its engine and body into the stands. Half of the 28 fans injured badly enough to need medical attention were treated and released from the track's trauma centre, while other 14 needed a trip to a nearby hospital. Two of the fans – one adult and one child – taken to hospital were listed in critical condition overnight, but were upgraded to stable on Sunday.
Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart somehow avoided the mêlée to take a victory he didn't savour.
"I looked in the mirror and that's the worst image I've ever seen in a race in my life," he said after the win.
"It's like you want to put on good races, but not at the risk of the drivers and the fans like this. We've always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport. We assume that risk – it's hard when the fans get caught up in it."
Saturday's incident marked the second time in four years that debris landed in the stands and injured spectators after a car climbed the fence during a NASCAR restrictor plate race.
In 2009, Carl Edwards' car got turned in the run to the finish in a Sprint Cup race at the Talladega Speedway and flipped into the fence. Eight fans were hurt by the debris in that incident, with the worst injury being a broken bone.
After that wreck, Edwards questioned the wisdom of running in packs on superspeedways, saying that NASCAR's rules would make the drivers "race like this until we kill somebody."
Ironically, the restrictor plates that make high risk pack racing the norm at superspeedways were adopted after a massive accident involving Bobby Allison during the 1987 Winston 500 at the wide open 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. Superspeedways are NASCAR's two big ovals with high banking at Daytona (2.5-miles) and Talladega that allow the drivers to stay at full throttle for the entire race.
Without the restrictor plates, which limit the air-gasoline mixture that can be sucked into the combustion chamber, the cars would hit unmanageable speeds on these ovals. Unfortunately, the plate solution creates pack racing which leaves almost no room for error – one small mistake usually results in multi-car accidents.
In fact, NASCAR even has a name for the pile-ups that happen regularly on superspeedways: "Big Ones."
History shows that one of the biggest dangers in hard hits is when the cars shed their tires, as happened on Saturday. When tires get thrown off the chassis, they become deadly projectiles.
The last time a fan died at a major U.S. auto race was in 1999 when three spectators were killed by a tire that ended up in the stands in a crash during an IndyCar race at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. In Formula One, race marshal Graham Beveridge lost his life five laps into the 2001 Australian Grand Prix after being struck by a tire that came off Canadian Jacques Villeneuve's BAR racer in an accident. F1 has since mandated tethers to keep the wheels secured to the cars in crashes.
More recently, 18-year-old Henry Surtees died in a 2009 Formula Two race at the Brands Hatch Circuit in England after he was hit on the head by a tire that had broken loose from its tether in a fellow driver's crash.
While the deaths of Beveridge and Surtees were unrelated to pack racing, the fatal accident that took IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was all about close quarters. IndyCar driver Wheldon died in a 15-car pile-up early in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas.
A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and the 2005 IndyCar champion, Wheldon's car flipped into the catch fence after wheel-on-wheel contact with another driver. While his Dallara racer was kept inside the track by the fencing, Wheldon received fatal injuries when his head struck one of its support posts.
After Wheldon's death, some NASCAR drivers questioned whether IndyCar should continue racing on high-banked ovals due to the dangerous nature of pack racing in open wheel cars.
"I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to," five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said a day after Wheldon died.
"I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place but hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow. I have a lot of friends that race in that series and I'd just rather see them on street circuits and road courses – no more ovals."
Although many criticized Johnson for his comments, he was bang on when it came to open wheel car and tracks like the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Several IndyCar drivers expressed similar concerns about the close quarters on the 1.5-mile, 20-degree banked oval before the race, but it went on with deadly consequences.
While Johnson singled out open wheel cars, the two potentially deadly incidents in four years at stock car events suggests that pack racing may not be exactly safe for NASCAR fans either.
The good news – if you can call it that – is that Sunday's Cup race with the newly-developed Generation 6 car was a single-file snooze fest with almost no pack racing, which meant the odds of a "Big One" were greatly reduced.
Then again, Sunday's yawn-inducing follow-the-leader Daytona 500 may prompt NASCAR to change the car's superspeedway configuration before the series gets to Talladega in early May to bring pack racing back.
And that will put a ticking time bomb back in NASCAR's hands.
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