Horrifying crash at Daytona exposes risks to fans

Sunday - 2/24/2013, 1:12pm EST

Kyle Larson's car (32) gets airborne during a multi-car wreck on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- 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 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."

The fencing used to protect seating areas and prevent cars from hurtling out of tracks has long been part of the debate over how to improve safety.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti lost close friend Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas in the 2011 IndyCar season finale, when Wheldon's car catapulted into the fencing and his head struck a support post. Since his death, IndyCar drivers have called for studies on how to improve the safety barriers.

Franchitti renewed the pleas on Twitter after the Daytona crash, writing "it's time (at)Indycar (at)nascar other sanctioning bodies & promoters work on an alternative to catch fencing. There has to be a better solution."

Another fan who witnessed the crash said he's long worried that sizable gaps in the fencing increase the chances of debris getting through to the stands.

"I've always thought the netting was very wide and pieces could fly through," said Lenny Brown, who was attending races at Daytona for the fourth time.

Among the most frightening accidents involving fans:

-- In 1987, Bobby Allison's car lifted off the track at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama while running over 200 mph, careening into the steel-cable fence and scattering debris into the crowd. That crash led to the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates at Talladega and its sister track in Daytona, NASCAR's fastest layouts. As a result, the cars all run nearly the same speed, and the field is typically bunched tightly together -- which plenty of drivers have warned is actually a more dangerous scenario than higher speeds.

-- That same year, at the Indianapolis 500, a fan was killed when struck by a tire that came off Tony Bettenhausen's car. The tire bounced off the front of Roberto Guerrero's car and flew to the top row of the grandstand.