Following Sunday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, it wasn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s dominating win that dominated the headlines, but rather what happened as the checkered flag waved.
Coming to the checkered flag, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick got together. What followed was one of the most terrifying accidents I’ve ever seen in my life. Granted, at 24 years old, one could say I haven’t seen many terrifying accidents in NASCAR since I became a fan back in 1994, and for the most part, they’d be right.
But this wreck was different.
As Hamlin spun around, he hit driver Austin Dillon at the right spot on the nose to send him airborne. As Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus said, after Dillon was then hit by David Ragan and Clint Bowyer, it took the car and made it act like a paper plate that was thrown against the wind. Dillon’s car flew sideways into the catch-fence, nearly coming to a dead stop before Brad Keselowski slid into him.
Watching this live, I held my breath. Just over two and a half years ago, I sat on my couch live as I watched IndyCar driver, and my personal favorite at the time Dan Wheldon catch air and slam into the catch-fence. He would succumb from his injuries. And it was at Daytona 14 years ago where I watched the face of NASCAR at the time get turned sideways and slam head-on into the wall and change the sport forever.
For this wreck in particular, Dillon’s car hit the catch-fence going over 180 mph, and for the most part came to a dead stop. When he was hit again, it took me back to two similar wrecks. The most recent one where a driver was hit after hitting the catch-fence was back in 2000, when Geoffrey Bodine was sent airborne in nearly the same place on the track as Dillon flipping end over end, turning the car into a fireball before being hit again. It’s a miracle that he lived through that crash, and continued to run in races for many years.
The other involved the King. Richard Petty was coming off of turn 4 in the 1988 Daytona 500, and as his car was disintegrating Brett Bodine hit him on the driver’s side. Petty had won the Daytona 500, and the Winston Cup championship seven times each at the time. Considering 10 people had died at Daytona International Speedway before that crash, there sounded like there was extra worry in the press box as the series’ winningest driver had been involved in a massive crash.
In this year’s edition, crew members of three different race teams rushed out to aid Austin Dillon to make sure he was OK. Despite technically breaking the rules by being on a hot track, I’m completely OK with that, and so is NASCAR. As Dillon hopped out of his car, the crowd erupted as he waved to them with a Lane Frost tribute.
Many reporters have called for NASCAR to become safer. I agree that there is a way to push the grandstands back a bit for the interest of the fans’ safety, but the problem with that is that they’d have to do that to all of the tracks. A freak accident where a car gets caught in the catch fence could happen at 150 mph just like it could going 190. I believe that NASCAR has the safest car out there in motorsports, and they’re pushing for safety in all areas. But for a 3,500-pound car going 190 mph or 150 into a catch-fence, it’s going to cause serious damage to the cars. It shouldn’t for the fans. It’s in NASCAR’s best interest to push the seats back, and keep people who don’t need to be that close away from those areas. The catch-fence did its job, and because of that, only five fans were treated for minor injuries.
In the future, I can only hope that number permanently stays at zero.
Ryan DeCosta is the sports reporter for the Elkin Tribune and Yadkin Ripple. He can be reached at 336-258-4052 or via Twitter @rsdecosta.