It's always been a risk for fans

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Bad as this was, it could have been much, much worse. There has been much worse, for auto racing spectators, in America and abroad.

Here, Saturday, the catch fencing was shredded and the steel reinforcement cables severed by the heaviest shrapnel I've ever seen come from disintegrating cars at a major race.

Yet that catch fencing did the best job, against a harsher test, that catch fencing has ever done. It was the result of years of research and improvement, after tragedies that took fans' lives.

The engine from Kyle Larson's car, and a wheel and A-frame assembly, tore through the fence. But they didn't go into the seats. They were contained on the concourse area in front of the stands. That was huge.

One tire did get into the stands, hitting one man in the head, according to witnesses. He reportedly was critically injured. Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III reported 28 spectators injured, 14 transported to hospitals and 14 treated at track medical facilities.

Flying tires have been a race promoter's nightmare for decades. Most recently, tires and shrapnel kiting over fences caused two tragedies in less than a year in Indy car racing in 1998 and '99.

Three spectators were killed during a CART race at Michigan International Speedway in '98, by shrapnel that flew over the fence and into the stands.

Less than a year later, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, three more fans were killed by one flying tire during an Indy Racing League event.

Those two tragedies prompted heightening and strengthening of catch fences, and widening of their overhangs, at tracks nationwide. NASCAR was proactive at that time, mandating tethers for wheels and hoods on its cars.

But no tethers are totally invulnerable to shearing in crashes as violent as Saturday's.

The worst motor racing spectator tragedy in history was at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955. Pierre Levegh's Mercedes shot into the main grandstands, immediately killing 81 spectators and Levegh.

Officials at Le Mans decided not to stop the race, fearing that if they did, the ensuing bedlam would further jam the small roads from Circuit de la Sarthe back into the town of Le Mans, blocking the paths of ambulances carrying dozens of badly injured.

Some French journalists believed the death toll eventually exceeded 100.

Ironically, the very reason the cars were racing in such tight packs at the end of Saturday's race here -- carburetor restrictor plates -- was the result of a near-disaster for fans at Talladega, Ala., in 1987.

Bobby Allison's car went airborne into the catch fencing in front of the main grandstands at Talladega. Witnessing it live with my naked eyes, I feared for a split second that this could be worse than Le Mans '55, that hundreds if not thousands of spectators might be badly injured or killed.

Allison's car shredded the catch fencing, but two huge steel cables, running parallel behind the fencing, stretched for a moment like monstrous rubber bands, then held. They kept the car from going into the stands.

That weekend, Bill Elliott had set what remains the all-time NASCAR qualifying record speed of 212.809 mph. Owners such as Junior Johnson pleaded with officials to do something to lower the speeds, with Johnson saying the cars were getting beyond human control and that the rear end of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS was literally lifting up off the pavement entering Turn 3 of the giant, 2.66-mile Alabama track.

NASCAR did nothing before the race started. But after the close brush for its paying customers, NASCAR took notice and acted to reduce speeds to less than 200 mph.

Within a year came the restrictor plates that stifle the cars to this very day at Daytona and Talladega, and leave drivers unable to get away from each other so that they race in tight packs. Thus, when one or two cars wreck at these two tracks, other cars often pile in, creating melees drivers call "the big one."

The crash at the checkered flag Saturday involved 12 cars.

Unrestricted speeds, well faster than 200 mph, might have made Saturday's crash much worse here. Then again, the tight pack racing certainly contributed to the number of cars that kept turning Larson's car and running into it.

But from Talladega '87 comes an anecdote so typical of the mindset of NASCAR fans.

While that race was red-flagged, I went down to the crash area to interview witnesses. Right on the front row, right where workmen were replacing the destroyed fencing, sat seven or eight fans in Dale Earnhardt T-shirts. Most of their faces and some of their hands were cut or bleeding. They had refused medical treatment.

"Were you guys sitting right here when it happened?" I asked one.

"Naw," he said. "We were sitting several rows up. The people who were sittin' here, they got scared and left. So we decided to come down here and take their seats for the rest of the race."

"Let me get this straight: You moved even closer to where the worst damage was?"

"Yessir," said another. "See, we figure if our man Dale can take a chance to get out there and put on a show for us, then we should take risks so we can be as close to him as we can, every time he comes by."

But in this vastly different era, with crashes like Saturday's, fan bravado might fade.