DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR, which has spent the past decade making its cars safer, was facing questions about the security of its fans after a vicious Nationwide crash Saturday injured 28 people, including two critically. The fans have been upgraded from critical condition, a hospital spokesman said.
Kyle Larson's Chevrolet went airborne into the Daytona International Speedway frontstretch catchfence after being collected in a last-lap crash, triggered when leader Regan Smith tried to block a move by Brad Keselowski off Turn 4 in the Drive4COPD 300. Both a tire and Larson's engine reached the grandstand side of the catchfence in the 12-car wreck.
Tony Stewart, who tied Dale Earnhardt with a record seventh Nationwide win at the 2.5-mile track, managed to avoid the pileup after heading down to the bottom of the apron, crossing the finish line under a caution flag.
A YouTube video from the grandstands showed the aftermath of the crash. "Oh my God," someone screams as a battered tire sits on chairs in the middle of the row, and fans began gesturing wildly for help from emergency workers as a man removed his shirt to tend to an injured fan.
In a news conference nearly three hours later, Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said 28 people were injured by debris from the wreck, with 14 being transported off property for treatment and 14 treated at the track's care center.
Chitwood said Daytona would conduct a safety review of its fencing, and the section that was hit by Larson's car has been replaced. A mesh crossover gate in the fencing won't be replaced for Sunday's Daytona 500.
"We don't anticipate moving any fans," Chitwood said. "We had our safety protocols in place. Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area. With the fence being repaired tonight to our safety protocols, we expect to go racing tomorrow with no changes."
Vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell said NASCAR would conduct an inspection of Larson's car and also evaluate the track's fencing.
"We're very confident that we'll be ready for the 55th running of the Daytona 500," O'Donnell said. "As with any of these incidents, we'll conduct a thorough review . We'll work closely with the tracks as we do for all our events. We'll learn what we can and see what we can apply in the future."
NASCAR confirmed all drivers were treated and released, but Michael Annett was transported to the hospital after an earlier crash that red-flagged the race with five laps remaining.
Halifax Health spokesman Byron Cogdell said 12 people were brought in to the Daytona Beach hospital, seven for treatment from the crash and five for heat exhaustion and other issues. Two of the seven were in critical condition, including one child. The other had life-threatening injuries, but Cogdell said both had been upgraded as of Sunday morning.
Another six people were transported to Halifax Urgent Care in Port Orange for minor injuries, and one additional person was transported to Florida Memorial for minor injuries.
The incident cast a somber mood on the postrace scene. NASCAR canceled all of its media center interviews with drivers, who all expressed concern for those in the grandstands during interviews with ESPN.
"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," race winner Tony Stewart said in a subdued victory lane celebration.. "So as much as we want to celebrate now and as much as this is a big deal to all of us, I'm more worried about the drivers and the fans in the stands right now, because I could see it all in the mirror, and it didn't look good from where I was at, either."
National TV networks such as CNN broke into programming with live updates of the crash, which occurred on the eve of the Sprint Cup Series' crown jewel season opener.
With Danica Patrick as the first woman starting from the pole position in the history of NASCAR's premier series, there already was plenty of attention focused on the Daytona 500, but the wreck ensured there will be more.
It's the second incident involving serious fan injuries in less than a year. Last August at Pocono Raceway, a fan was killed after being struck by lightning, and nine others were injured shortly after a severe thunderstorm ended a race early.
Now NASCAR had another reason to redouble efforts on safety, which many veteran drivers often describe as a moving target because of the unpredictable chaos of racing cars at 200 mph in large packs.
"The biggest thing we know is we don't know everything we need to know because there are moments that occur that we've just never seen before and can't really plan for, although everybody's effort is directed that way to make it as safe as possible for both competitors and fans," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "It's evidenced everywhere we go with the fences, cables and structures and the gaps between the racetrack and seating area, but we're always very aware of the fact that we don't know everything.
The pits at Daytona International Speedway were cleared Saturday evening to evacuate fans injured when parts of a car went through and over the fence at the end of the race.
The engine from Larson's car, which flew high and tore into the fence at the start-finish line, was seen burning inside an open area in the fence afterward. A wheel and lots of debris also were seen in the stands, where safety crews were working on at least five people, including four who were strapped to backboards. And at least two people were injured in the upper deck, where another safety crew with an additional two stretchers were sent.
Immediately after the race, the frontstretch was littered with pieces of white debris - much as if a plane had crashed. Fans cheered as Larson climbed immediately from his car, but attention quickly turned to those in the stands.
Emergency personnel rushed into the seats and used fire extinguishers on the smoking engine, which went through the catchfence. The infield grass was suddenly flooded with safety trucks.
Crewmen from assorted race teams stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fans on pit road, staring across the racetrack as medics frantically worked on injured people in the stands. There was a murmur as shocked spectators turned to one another and asked what happened.
The engine was eventually taken away with a forklift and placed on a flatbed truck - with suspension parts still attacked.
Long after the pits were cleared, fans in the fan zone lingered and had quiet conversations among themselves. Some took pictures and some gathered to watch replays of the incident on their cell phones.
Helton said the series and track worked furiously to figure out the damage.
"There obviously was some intrusion into the fence," Helton said. "Fortunately, there was plenty of emergency workers ready to go. They all jumped in on it pretty quickly. Right now, it's just a function of trying to determine what all damage is done. They're moving folks to care centers and taking some folks over to Halifax Medical. We'll be able to update later on, but right now, all we know is everyone is working really hard on determining what all happened."
Travis Smith was among the spectators in the main grandstands that saw Saturday's wreck unfold. He was with his family.
"The damn car went through the fence. It shattered everywhere," he said. "Tires went flying everywhere. Hit a bunch of people."
Smith said his cousin, Caroline Morris, 15, was injured, hit by debris in the forearm.
"It was nothing compared to other people. ... The last thing I remember, a tire was coming right at me. I turned my back and turned back around and it was panic. It was a sight to be seen."
Smith said he saw 4-5 people taken out on backboards.
Stewart, who won the race by avoiding the crashing cars, appeared shaken after the race.
"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 from Victory Lane. "So as much as we want to celebrate now and as much as this is a big deal to us, I'm more worried about the drivers and the fans in the stands right now, because I could see it all in the mirror, and it didn't look good from where I was at, either."
The Drive4COPD 300 had restarted with two laps remaining in the 120-lap race after it had been interrupted by a multicar pileup that resulted in driver Michael Annett being sent to a nearby hospital. As the field raced to the white flag signaling the final lap, Regan Smith's car was turned sideways.
"I threw a block there," Smith said. "I knew Brad (Keselowski) was going to try to make a move on me. ... If I'm in the same situation tomorrow (in the Daytona 500), I'll do the same thing again."
As cars began to spin, Larson's car became airborne and ripped into the catch fence. When it came to a stop, its engine was missing.
"I took a couple of big hits there and saw my engine was gone," Larson said.
NASCAR officials said all drivers involved in the second massive wreck were treated and released.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said everyone "seems in good spirits" among the drivers who were in the care center, but Earnhardt expressed concern for those in the grandstands. "Guess some debris went up there," he said. "I'm worried about everybody up there."
Brad Keselowski echoed those same thoughts.
"Watching a replay, my reaction is the same as probably everyone in the garage and that is hoping everyone in the grandstands is OK," he said. "That's really unfortunate for us as a sport. ... I think until we know the status of everyone involved, it's hard to put a lot of thought into the 500. Hopefully we'll know soon, and hopefully everyone is OK, and if that's the case, we'll get to focusing on Sunday."
In an April 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway, eight fans were injured when Carl Edwards' Ford flew into the catchfence after being bumped by race winner Brad Keselowski. Seven fans sustained minor injures in the incident, and Blake Bobbitt, 17, was airlifted to a hospital with a broken jaw after being struck by debris.
After that crash a shaken Edwards said: "NASCAR just puts us in this box, and we'll race like this until we kill somebody, and then they'll change it. I'm glad the car didn't go up in the grandstands. I don't know if I could live with myself if I ended up in the grandstands."