DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. -- Steve Johnson was looking to the right, watching his favorite driver, Tony Stewart, take the checkered flag on Saturday.
His wife, Gaylene, was looking at what was coming toward them from the other direction.
“As I turned to the left, I was knocked to the ground,” said Johnson, 63, a lifelong NASCAR fan and real estate agent from Leslie, Mich. “I was on my back looking at the sky.”
He had been struck by a large chunk of metal – one of the many pieces of debris sent flying into the stands after a car went airborne and crashed into the 22-foot safety fence that separates the track from the fans.
Steve Johnson – who was standing some 75 feet from the track, 30 rows back in the top section of Daytona International Speedway – has a nasty head wound above his left eye. Doctors have told him he’ll have a scar. His wife had internal bleeding.
It taught them a hard fact of auto racing: Almost no one who attends a race – even those seated far from the action – is immune from the danger.
Johnson watched the Speed Channel in his Florida hospital room and learned the details. A 12-car wreck on the final lap of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race tore a hole in the safety fence and sent debris – including a wheel – careening into the frontstretch grandstand.
At least 28 fans – including Johnson and his wife – were injured.
“Out of 200,000 people or whatever was there, it’s pretty long odds,” he said. “And I considered myself far enough away that the odds of something hitting me were tiny.”
A frame-by-frame look at a video taken by a fan at Saturday’s race clearly shows that a wheel from rookie Kyle Larson’s car went through – not over – the track’s catchfence, a barrier of steel fencing and reinforced wire.
The wheel appeared to shear off Larson’s airborne car after it hit a fence pole next to a gate.
NASCAR is expected to perform a safety review of track fencing in the accident’s wake. Joie Chitwood, the president of Daytona International Speedway, said track and NASCAR officials will look at “the car, the fence and everything” in coming days.
Some safety experts have suggested that putting more distance between fans and track fences would significantly improve safety. But as the Johnsons’ experience shows, that alone may not eliminate track hazards.
With the right angle and velocity, debris from a crash can travel long distances, said Dr. Steve Olvey, board member of the International Council for Motorsport Sciences, a group working to improve racing safety.
Olvey referred to the Indianapolis 500 race of 1987, when a wheel flew off a car and into the stands, killing spectator Lyle Kurtenbach. The Rothschild, Wis., resident had been standing in the last row.
“You can’t guard against everything,” Olvey said. “It’s just not possible. We’re all working on ways to make it better so it doesn’t happen. But we’re not there at the point where it’s completely safe.”
Some fans assume that the only dangerous place to sit is near the fence, said Sam Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, a group that has worked to improve racing safety.
“That’s obviously a false assumption,” he said.
Given the speeds and forces involved in NASCAR races, it’s not surprising that large chunks of debris flew 75 feet into the stands, Gualardo said.
Track owners could likely prevent many injuries, he said, by building what he calls a “canopy” fence. It would look a bit like a batting cage – running vertically and then horizontally, most of the way over the track. Building such a fence would be expensive, he said, “but my guess is it would be far less expensive than what they’re dealing with now.”
Since its inception, NASCAR has attempted a tricky balancing act: giving fans a thrilling experience, while doing everything possible to keep them safe.
At a number of major tracks across the country, catchfences have been raised.
That’s what happened at Charlotte Motor Speedway after a wreck at a 1999 Indy Racing League race sent a tire flying into the grandstand, killing three fans. That accident prompted track officials to raise the catchfence from 15 to 21 feet.
NASCAR has made great strides in improving safety for fans, drivers and pit crew workers, Gualardo said.
“But as this situation points out, that march didn’t go far enough,” he said.
‘Life is dangerous’
The Johnsons expect to leave the hospital on Tuesday; Steve with a bandage on his head, Gaylene with 37 stitches in her left arm.
But Saturday’s race won’t be the last one they attend in person, he said.
He said he doesn’t hold the track owners responsible. Racing is a dangerous sport, and fans realize the inherent risks, he said.
“You can’t make everything safe,” he said. “... Life is dangerous, and life probably wouldn’t be worth living if it was completely safe.”