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NASCAR launches extensive probe following Daytona wreck

- aalexander@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013

NASCAR has launched what it expects to be a far-reaching investigation into track fencing and the circumstances that led to the injuries of at least 28 fans at Saturday’s Daytona race, a top official says.

“This was a rare instance but certainly it’s something we’ve got to look at and fix,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, told the Observer Tuesday. “ …If this is something we can improve, we certainly want to do that.”

The violent, 12-car wreck on the last lap of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway tore a hole in the safety fence and sent debris – including a wheel – careening into the front-stretch grandstand.

The injuries to fans happened after rookie Kyle Larson got knocked airborne into the catch fence, a 22-foot-high barrier of steel posts and reinforced wire that separates the track from the grandstand seats. Post-race photographs show the wreck cut gaping holes in the metal fence.

O’Donnell said that while it’s still early in NASCAR’s investigation, it appears so far that all of the debris came through the fence rather than over it. Before Saturday, NASCAR officials believed the fencing at Daytona and other tracks was the best available.

But now those officials say they are planning a fresh look, with an eye toward improving fencing at tracks that host NASCAR races. Experts at NASCAR’s research and development center in Concord have been asked to help conduct that review.

“We’ll pull in experts on fencing, and we’ll look at what new technologies may be available,” O’Donnell said. “If there’s something out there, we’ll find it.”

Racing safety expert Danny White, director of Motorsports for Purdue University, said that newly available computer software could dramatically assist in efforts to build better fences. That software would allow engineers to simulate how fences of various designs and materials would hold up under impact from race cars traveling more than 100 miles per hour.

The simulations would help engineers fine-tune a fence’s design “before you take a motor and put it in a cannon and shoot it at a fence,” White said.

Researchers in Europe have also been working to build better materials for catch fences. White said he has been asked to examine a new Plexiglass-like material that is said to have enormous strength.

O’Donnell said he expects NASCAR’s investigation will be similar in scope to the extensive review that went into the development of so-called “soft walls,” track walls that are designed to protect drivers by absorbing the impact from crashes, such as the one that killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001.

“At every one of our tracks, fan safety is first and foremost,” O’Donnell said. “We want to get it right. Without our fans, we don’t have a sport.”

From 1990 to 2010, at least 46 spectators died in U.S. auto racing, an Observer analysis found. Most of the accidents occurred at small ovals and off-road courses. But six of the victims were attending races at large tracks.

Those victims included three fans who were killed when a wreck caused a tire to fly into the grandstand at an Indy Racing League race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999. That accident prompted track officials to raise the catch fence from 15 to 21 feet.

Three more spectators were killed in 1998, when a tire and debris from a crash flew into the stands during a CART race at Michigan International Speedway.

Though many large tracks have increased the height of their catch fences in recent years, those efforts haven’t put an end to injuries. On April 27, 2009, seven fans at Talladega Superspeedway were hurt when driver Carl Edwards’ car went airborne and struck the front-stretch fence.

Not all of the spectators hurt in recent years were sitting near the safety fences. Some of those injured Saturday – including Steve and Gaylene Johnson – were sitting in the top section of the grandstand.

While improving fences will no doubt be costly, experts say, failing to do so could prove even more so.

Orlando lawyer Matt Morgan announced on Twitter Monday that his firm has already been hired to represent three of those injured at Daytona. Morgan told a Florida television station that lawyers will be questioning the manufacturer of the fence.

The next major NASCAR race will take place Sunday in Phoenix.

Alexander: 704-358-5060

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