Daytona crash drives concerns as NASCAR comes to PIR

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- This weekend NASCAR is coming to Phoenix International Raceway amid safety concerns raised by the horrific crash in the last lap of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona injured at least 28 fans on Saturday.

The cars were racing at 175 mph when they got tangled up and pieces of one car flew right up over the protective catch-fence separating fans from the racetrack.  More than a dozen of those fans had to be taken to the hospital.

On Monday there were already hundreds of fans camped out at the track in anticipation of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 weekend.  None were too concerned about safety at the race.

“I think they do more than enough and they never stop.  They're always safety-conscience minded and I think they always will be,” said NASCAR fan Geno Drury, who said he’s been camping at PIR for races ever since NASCAR came to the Valley.

Wrecks that go into the stands are rare and Valley NASCAR writer Becca Gladden said the risk is even lower at PIR due to lower speeds than those at super speedways like Daytona.

“So where they're going 200 [mph], maybe even a little over 200 at Daytona, they're probably going 135-145 at PIR; somewhere at that range.  So if you do have an accident it's not as high a rate of speed,” Gladden, a feature writer for Motorsport Illustrated News, explained.

However, Gladden said any shocking wreck like the Daytona debacle could eventually  lead to changes at all tracks.
“Of course all of these modifications also cost money so in some ways it’s a bit of a step-by-step process,” Gladden said. “And every time an incident happens and the engineers say, ‘We have to make this adjustment or this improvement,’ then that has to be done across all the tracks.”

Valley IndyCar driver Paul Tracy said he thinks it’s time auto racing looks at updating the catch fencing at high-speed tracks. Catch fences are designed to slow out-of-control cars.

“All the series' and the governing bodies have done a great job of making the cars safer, making the drivers' protection better; they have safer walls,” Tracy told 3TV on Monday.  “[But] the fencing systems have been the same for a long period of time and, like I said, it's time maybe to look at that and revamp that safety net system for all the tracks.”

Tracy was racing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year when he was caught in a fiery crash that took the life of driver Dan Wheldon. During the pileup, several cars went airborne and Tracy said if the crash had happened near the grandstand debris would easily have gone into the crowd.

“The way the fencing is, you've got big square holes in the fencing and it really acts and grabs the car, starts ripping it around in the fencing.  It's almost like a fish stuck in a net,” Tracy explained.  “It just starts to shred the car apart and all those pieces are still moving and some of it inherently is going to get through the fence and into the crowd.”

Tracy said one possible answer is a clear Lexan barrier to separate the track from the stands.  He also said, however, that it would be tremendously expensive for tracks to install and likely receive push-back from fans who like to feel close to the action.

“They want to see and smell and hear the action, smell the rubber, feel the dust and debris come off the cars.  That's part of the experience of going to the racetrack,” Tracy said.  “But what happened at Daytona - that's worst case scenario.”

Fans know there are inherent risks to watching high-speed autosports close-up.

“Yeah, there is a chance [debris can hurt someone].  I try not to think about it, ya know,” Drury said.

The Valley isn’t immune to auto tragedies. In 2010 a woman was killed when a drag-car tire flew into the crowd during a wreck at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler.