DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As the driver whose horrifying airborne crash at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987 was the impetus for NASCAR's restrictor-plate era, Bobby Allison is uniquely qualified to assess Saturday's Nationwide Series crash that injured 28 fans at Daytona International Speedway.
The NASCAR Hall of Famer said it "could have been really, really worse.
"That engine got out of that car and had all that weight and momentum and it could have really done some damage," Allison said during a Sunday morning news conference before the Daytona 500. "That was really fortunate."
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who also was participating in prerace festivities, said fencing technology needed to be re-evaluated, suggesting maybe a "double fence" as a potential solution.
"Of course, NASCAR and the IndyCar Series are looking at everything they can to try to make it safer," Rutherford said. "What happened (Saturday) was a terrible thing because the drivers accept that's part of the game. We have to roll the dice and move on. But you don't want to involve the fans."
In the May 3, 1987, race at Talladega Superspeedway, Allison's Buick spun wildly down the frontstretch after blowing an engine. The car lifted off the pavement and sailed for 3 seconds before striking the catchfence near the flag stand (similar to Kyle Larson's crash Saturday at Daytona). A section of fence nearly 100 feet long was torn apart, but the car stayed in the track.
Newspaper accounts of the race reported at least four fans were injured but none seriously.
"In the ambulance, I said, 'How many people got hurt?' " Allison recalled Sunday. "They said, 'Nobody got hurt.' They put me in the safety vehicle and headed around the racetrack the long way to get back to the infield hospital. I said, 'Yeah, they're taking me this way so I don't have to see all the dead bodies laying there.' They really had me worried.
"We got back to the infield care center, and the doctor came out and said, 'Shut off the helicopters - we don't need 'em.' And I said, 'If they don't need the helicopters, that means nobody is hurt bad.' It gave me some relief."
That crash still caused major concern within NASCAR, which reacted by mandating restrictor plates on carburetors for its July race at Daytona, a sister track to Talladega in length and banking. By choking airflow to the engine, the plates reduced horsepower by roughly half and kept speeds well below the 200 mph that was believed to be the point at which cars became susceptible to liftoff.
Three days before Allison's crash, Bill Elliott captured the pole with a 212.809-mph lap, which remains the fastest qualifying speed in NASCAR history.
Despite slowing the cars, they still have lifted off at Talladega. In an April 2009 race, Carl Edwards was launched into the frontstretch catchfence after being bumped by Brad Keselowski, injuring eight fans.
"That crash at Talladega (in 2009), it was so fortunate none of them were hurt badly," Allison said. "It was one of those things that does really scare you, but it's always a possibility because the speeds are where they are."