Tony Stewart won the DRIVE4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday afternoon, but pit lane celebrations were subdued and overshadowed by a shocking accident on the final lap of the race that led to injuries of more than two dozen fans in the grandstands.
14 were treated at the Speedway, and another 14 transported to local hospital facilities. Six of these are described as serious, including two in critical condition with one said to be in need of surgery for head trauma and another described as a minor. All were subsequently listed by the hospitals as being stable.
"We've always known since racing was started this was a dangerous sport, but we assume that risk, and it's hard when the fans get caught up in it," Stewart told ESPN
in Victory Lane.
Regan Smith was racing Tony Stewart to the finish line, the two being pushed by Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. respectively, when Keslowski pulled his own move on Smith around the outside. Smith responded by attempting to block Keselowski but instead made contact and got his own car turned around, which ignited a massive pile-up engulfing the main pack of cars closing up from behind.
While many cars were reduced to scrap metal, it was Kyle Larson's car that was spun into the air and twisted round before making contact with one of the metal posts supporting the catchfence. The post sheered off the engine block of the car, which was itself torn in half. The engine and front assembly penetrated the catch fence into the spectator area, while one tyre was thrown into the air and landed some 20 rows up the main grandstand.
Medics rushed to treat injured fans, with several carried away on backboards to local hospitals. Medical helicopters landed on a now-cleared pit road to assist with the treatment and transporting casualties to hospital.
NASCAR itself did not have any immediate official comment. "We are currently continuing to assess the situation, taking care of those involved," explained NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp.
"We'll be able to update later on, but right now, all we know is everybody's working real hard on determining what all happened," NASCAR president Mike Helton told ESPN
. "Fortunately, with the way the event's equipped up, there were plenty of emergency workers ready to go, and they jumped in on it pretty quickly."
In a subsequent press conference, NASCAR officials said that Sunday's Daytona 500 Sprint Cup race would go ahead as planned and that all necessary repairs to the fence and seating were already underway.
Amazingly, all 12 drivers involved in the crash were themselves uninjured. They were seen and quickly cleared by the in-field medical centre. Even Kyle Larson, whose car was completely torn apart, had been able to extricate himself from the wreckage of the #32 by himself and walk away.
However, driver Michael Annett was transported to the nearby Halifax Medical Center after a previous wreck half an hour before. That had been triggered five laps from the scheduled end of the race when Annett himself made contact with the left rear of Austin Dillon's car and turned the two of them around and into the SAFER barrier, in an accident which then caught up 11 cars in total including Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth. That crash saw the race red flagged for 20 minutes for clean-up operations.
Annett was the only driver with injuries serious enough to require hospitalisation. He was subsequently reported as being alert and responsive, having undergone a CT scan after complaining of pain and bruising to his chest and sternum.
Kenseth along with his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch had dominated much of the race, but Kenseth had been left without a drafting partner after Busch succumbed to an overheating problem that had bedevilled the #54 from earlier in the day. The race had been run in much warmer conditions than the teams had been used to so far in the previous week's build up.
Kyle's brother Kurt also exited the race prematurely when his #1 Kyle Busch Motorsports car was damaged by a spin through the in-field grass section. Polesitter Trevor Bayne's race came to an end on lap 85 with a drive shaft failure, while Danica Patrick enjoyed a strong start to the race race but then suffered an engine failure just 31 laps in that forced her to park the #34 in the garage for the rest of the afternoon.Full race results also available.