By Jim Peltz
7:11 PM PST, February 23, 2013
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A crash near the end of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona turned to horror Saturday when one of the cars hurtled into the grandstand fence, sending pieces of the car flying into the seats and injuring more than two dozen spectators.
The car was driven by Kyle Larson, who was collected in a 12-car crash just as the field, traveling at more than 175 mph, was approaching the finish line at Daytona International Speedway.
The crash was so violent that the front half of Larson's white No. 32 Chevrolet was sheared off as his car went airborne and tore into the fence.
The car's burning engine and one of its mangled front tires came to rest at the base of the fence, in a "buffer" zone short of the seats.
But another tire and countless pieces of debris flew higher into the grandstands, where fans immediately began waving to get help for the injured.
The Associated Press reported that at least 33 spectators were injured. Speedway President Joie Chitwood said 14 people were taken to hospitals and an additional 14 were treated at the track. The extent of their injuries was not immediately confirmed.
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reported that Byron Cogdell, public information officer at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, said seven of the injured had arrived there. Six suffered trauma injuries, with two in critical condition and one child with life-threatening injuries, he told the newspaper.
Cogdell also told the Observer that six of the injured had been taken to Halifax Health Medical Center of Port Orange and all were listed in stable condition.
Neither Larson, a 20-year-old Elk Grove, Calif., native making his first Nationwide series start, nor the other drivers involved in the wreck were injured.
"Had some flames come in the cockpit, but luckily I was all right and could get out of the car quick," Larson said.
The Nationwide Series is NASCAR's second-level division, and the crash put a damper on excitement surrounding Sunday's Daytona 500, the sport's crown-jewel race in NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who occasionally drives in the Nationwide series, evaded the wreck and won Saturday's race. But his celebration in Victory Lane was muted, even before the number of injuries was known.
"I'm more worried about the drivers and the fans right now," Stewart said. "We've always known since racing started that this is a dangerous sport."
Rescue workers were on the scene almost immediately, treating the wounded and hustling orange stretchers into the area as ambulances lined up on the front stretch of the 2.5-mile track.
As night fell, workers were repairing the fence to have it ready for the Daytona 500. "We expect to go racing tomorrow with no changes," Chitwood said.
The crash occurred as the race neared its finish. Regan Smith was leading Brad Keselowski and, as they approached the checkered flag, Smith's car suddenly veered to the right into the wall.
That set off a chain-reaction wreck that collected Larson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others, with Keselowski colliding with Larson and Larson's car going airborne as it smashed into the fence.
Smith "was first and I was second and we were pushing," Keselowski said. "I kind of had the run and the move to win the race and Regan obviously tried to block it and that's understandable. He wants to win too, and at the end it just caused chaos."
The crash brought to mind the 1987 wreck involving Bobby Allison at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, in which his car went airborne and into the grandstand fence.
That accident prompted NASCAR to cap racing speeds at Talladega and Daytona — two fast tracks with high-banked corners — in hopes of preventing another such incident.
Saturday's crash also will be studied to "see what we can improve on," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president for racing operations. "Certainly the safety of our fans is first and foremost."
Copyright © 2013, The Los Angeles Times