NASCAR’s Daytona 500, headlined by Danica Patrick becoming the first female driver to grab the pole position, was upstaged a day earlier as a horrific crash ended the Nationwide’s Drive4COPD 300 race.
On Saturday, the day before the Daytona 500, car parts flew into stands after a multi-car crash. At least 30 people suffered injuries.
“We’ve always known that racing is a dangerous sport, we assume that risk. It’s hard when the fans get caught in it,” Drive4COPD 300 winner Tony Stewart commented after the crash that ended the race in Daytona International Speedway.
“As much as this is a big deal to us [to win], I’m more worried about the other racers and the fans in the stands most importantly.”
Like Stewart said in the post-race interview, racers assume the danger of the sport. NASCAR has seen its share of accidents over its history-each one improving the sport, whether it’s remodeling tracks, cars or cockpit safety.
On Feb. 18, 2001, a crash in lap 199 of 200 claimed the life of racing legend Dale Earnhardt as his car careened head-on into the wall. Since that moment, NASCAR made a dedicated push to improve the way racers are seated in the cars. Head and neck restraints have been significantly modified for better support, and the stock car, now in its sixth generation, has been reinforced.
But on the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide race at Daytona, which saw the field coming out of the last corner, rookie 20-year-old Kyle Larson went airborne after running into Brad Keselowski. Larson’s car was torn in half by the “catch-guard” chain linked fence, which is a requirement in all levels of racing. The fence was ripped through by Larson’s car as the engine and parts of its axle remained clinging to the fence. The rest of the car landed 50 yards past the finish line while 11 other cars remained scattered throughout the track.
In the grandstand, fans looked stunned. Larson, along with other racers involved in the crash, got out unharmed but watched in despair as medical personnel helped fans in the crash site. Scrap pieces of metal and tires were propelled into the stands as nothing but a cloud of burnt tire smoke could be seen while the camera panned to what appeared to be Tony Stewart’s 33 car.
“We met with NASCAR, and we reviewed all the repairs we made last evening and we’re prepared to go racing today [Sunday],” Joie Chitwood III, President of Dayton International Speedway, said in a press briefing before Sunday’s race.
Chitwood discussed improving seating for fans in the future, while offering seat changes to fans who felt uncomfortable returning to their seat for Sunday’s race.
As many in NASCAR fear the “big one” occurring, many that don’t follow racing felt that this only aided to the already rising TV ratings as the much anticipated Sprint Cup Series, Daytona 500, kicked off with Danica Patrick starting in the first position.
“If you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Don’t feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Just ignore that and let it be about what your potential is,” Patrick commented after the race.
After riding in the top five for the majority of the race, Patrick made her move in lap 90, and again in lap 127, becoming the first female driver to lead the Daytona 500. As the race narrowed with 17 laps to go, Danica remained close to leader Brad Keselowski until her inexperience showed and she failed to stop a push by five-time Sprint Cup Series winner Jimmy Johnson, who ran the bottom half of the track with help of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The drafting tandem pushed their way through the field as they exited the final turn in the straightaway. This sent Patrick back to an eighth-place finish.
After the race, Patrick sounded pleased with her outcome.
“I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first women to do many things. I really just hope that I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make.”