Cars and flags airborne during holiday weekend at Speedway
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line Sunday night to win the Coke Zero 400 for the second time at the Daytona International Speedway.
In NASCAR tradition, he saw the checkered flag of success wave from his front windshield. But from his rearview, he witnessed the doom of another potentially fatal crash. Driver Austin Dillon’s car hit a competitor’s – went airborne – then slammed into the 22-feet-high catch fence designed to protect fans. The car was totaled, yet Dillon walked away with just bruises to his forearm and tailbone.
‘On the verge of tears’
The crash was “terrifying to watch,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose father Dale Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001, also in the No. 3 car.
Earnhardt Jr. said he was “on the verge of tears” as he looked back just after his victory Monday morning and saw what was unfolding behind him. Jimmie Johnson saw it too and would say afterward: “I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive from what he went through.”
While no one was killed Sunday night, 13 fans were assessed for injuries, according to Daytona officials.
Eight declined treatment, four were treated by track medics and one was transported to the hospital (that fan was treated and released).
Patriotism vs. heritage
The incident raised as much controversy among NASCAR experts and officials regarding safety as growing discussions regarding the presence of Confederate flags.
Last week, NASCAR Chairman Brian France announced that the Confederate flag would be banned from the sanctioning body’s races. In the same week, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said the flag would be allowed at last weekend’s races in Daytona Beach but fans would be offered an exchange of an American flag in honor of the nation’s birthday celebration and the governing body’s decision.
Patriotic American fans and those giving homage to southern heritage converged for Sunday night’s race, including three war veterans who were presented Congressional Medals of Honor during a special ceremony. Ryan Pitts (New Hampshire) and Sal Giunta (Denver) both fought in Afghanistan while St. Petersburg resident Gary Littrell is a Vietnam vet. Each served the United States Armed Forces with pride and valor.
In an Orlando Sentinel story, Pitts was quoted as saying, “The American flag is what binds us all together. Everybody under that flag is equal. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or where you came from.’’
“We fought to defend the Constitution of the United States and all the freedoms people are entitled to buy it. And, yes, that includes the right to display a flag that, whether intended or not, is a divisive symbol of this country’s racist past and still empowers modern-day racists like the monster who shot nine people dead at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston,” Pitts added.
“There’s only one flag I follow,” Giunta offered. “It’s the prettiest flag I’ve ever seen in my life — the American flag.”
Littrell took his patriotism to another level and paid a $500 zoning variance to the city council in his hometown so he could erect a 30-foot flagpole and fly a 5-by-8 foot American flag.
Alongside fans from every ethnicity, they disregarded racism and withstood a nearly four-hour rain delay to indulge NASCAR fans two favorite bedfellows: speed and excitement.
But flags and fun aside, officials are most interested in protecting fans. Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Speedway in Alabama are NASCAR’s two fastest tracks and are also the most dangerous tracks on the circuits. Experts suggest a more secure barrier than a catch fence.
While the safety fence kept the car out of the stands and helped save Dillon’s life, debris from the crash – including what appeared to be pieces of car paneling – flew through the chain-link fence that is reinforced by strong steel cables.
The resulting accident leads experts to the alternative of moving fans back or removing the bottom rows of seats – even if it cuts attendance and revenue.
Safety expert Sam Gualardo said the Speedway’s current catch fence “is not doing its job.”
Fence fails fans
“Fans should not have to go to a race and ever risk being injured while enjoying something that they love,” said Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, a group that has examined ways to make racing safer.
Larry McReynolds, a former Sprint Cup Series crew chief and NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports, says tracks should consider moving fans back.
“A bit of a buffer zone between the catch fence and seats would be a good thing,” McReynolds said.
Earlier safety changes made by NASCAR probably helped Dillon walk away from Monday’s wreck, McReynolds noted.
In the most vulnerable areas, experts say, tracks might be wise to install another barrier behind the catch fence. It could be made from Lexan — the ultra-strong transparent plastic used in NASCAR windshields, said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Because grime would accumulate as races progress, Wheeler said, the challenge would be to keep the plastic clean so fans can see clearly.
“I think every good track operator knows his first responsibility is to protect the spectator,” Wheeler said. “It’s things like this (crash) that bring about innovation.”
The least popular solution for fans would be NASCAR lowering the speeds at Daytona and Talladega with a rules package that restricts the cars’ ability to reach 200 mph.
The two NASCAR drivers whose sentiments best bookend racetrack symbolism – from flags to safety – are the Coke Zero 400 winner and Dillon.
Regarding the Confederate flag, Earnhardt Jr. stated last week, “I think it is offensive to an entire race. It really does nothing for anybody to be there, flying. It belongs in the history books and that’s about it,’’ he said.
Dillon said early Monday following the crash about the speeds at Daytona: “It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think. I mean, we’ve got to figure out something. I think our speeds are too high, I really do.”