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 hell 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 Saturdays 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, its 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 Saturdays race clearly shows that a wheel from rookie Kyle Larsons car went through not over the tracks catchfence, a barrier of steel fencing and reinforced wire.
The wheel appeared to shear off Larsons 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 accidents 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 cant guard against everything, Olvey said. Its just not possible. Were all working on ways to make it better so it doesnt happen. But were not there at the point where its 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.
Thats obviously a false assumption, he said.
Given the speeds and forces involved in NASCAR races, its 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 theyre 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.
Thats 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 didnt 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 Saturdays race wont be the last one they attend in person, he said.
He said he doesnt hold the track owners responsible. Racing is a dangerous sport, and fans realize the inherent risks, he said.
You cant make everything safe, he said. ... Life is dangerous, and life probably wouldnt be worth living if it was completely safe. Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.