On Sunday night while the Dale Jr fans pressed themselves closer against the fence at the finish line on a green/white checkered to see their man take the flag, a maelstrom was taking place behind him. Not just any type of ‘big one’ or normal car scattering event, but one of much greater importance.
Thunderstorms had moved into the Daytona area, which is normal in the summer, and dumped rain that took the track into the late hours of the evening to dry. Once the race was underway it was every restrictor plate racing fans dream: Bumper to bumper, pushing and shoving and trying to position themselves at the right point upon which to make their Banzai attack move.
That’s fairly typical, a big wreck is typical and racing that close is typical for plate races. However, Austin Dillon’s car losing control and being catapulted into the front stretch catch fencing was anything but normal. Yes it’s happened before and people were hurt. They were hurt again, 5 fans were hit and treated for flying debris.
Denny Hamlin looked as if he backed out of the throttle and backed up into Kevin Harvick. That pushed Jeff Gordon into Dillon, whose car then went airborne and over two or three lanes of traffic and up into the catch-fence toward the entrance to Turn 1.
Once this car became airborne and passed over the top of several other cars at the start/finish, it moved into the catch-fence at over 190 mph moving forward and centrifugally being flung to the outside. The fence did it’s job of stopping the car from intruding into the stands, but just barely.
The fence had actually taken an angled hit that tore it down after Dillon’s car impacted it scattering debris, some of it metal parts, into the crowd. NASCAR’s worst nightmare narrowly avoided.
When it was all said and done, Dillon’s car was ripped to shreds and his burning engine sat in the infield front straight like a talisman of some natural disaster. It wasn’t pretty. 13 fans were medically checked, 8 turned down treatment and 5 received medical attention.
This, coupled with the IndyCar Fontana race, put the spotlight directly on these two sanctioning bodies to make stronger moves to prevent intrusion of a racing car into the stands and to prevent the car from disintegrating on a forward moving side impact.
Keeping the cars out of the stands is possible, it worked for Dillon, but it could have just as easily taken down the second pole, that holds the retention cables, and flown into the crowd, The last time a racing disaster had that potential it turned out very badly. (See the video below.) It was LeMans 1955.
This incident from 60 years ago still haunts track developers and sanctioning bodies as well it should. Despite the safety measures of today, one cannot predict the unpredictable and if auto racing has shown us anything it’s that once a set of circumstances are set into motion, they can produce disastrous and unpredictable results.
There’s no doubt that NASCAR will take further steps to beef up the catch-fencing along with looking at how fast these restrictor plate races need to be.
After leaving the medical care facility, Austin Dillon said: “It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think,” Dillon told reporters after exiting the care center. “We’ve got to figure out something. Our speeds are too high, I think. I think everybody could get good racing with slower speeds. We can work at that, and then figure out a way to keep the cars on the ground. That’s the next thing. We’re fighting hard to make the racing good. I hope the fans appreciate that. We don’t, but it’s our job. You go out there and hold it wide open to the end and hope you make it through.”
IndyCar take notice.