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NASCAR Fan Safety: Is buying a ticket to a NASCAR race becoming risky business?

Posted on Monday, August 10th, 2015

NASCAR cover imageA 3500-pound racecar leaves the track and goes airborne, hurdling through space at 200 miles per hour toward the grandstands packed with thousands of spectators. What goes up, must come down, and for an increasing number of NASCAR fans in recent years, cars leaving the track has meant fans leaving the stands on stretchers with serious injuries and even death.

This is something that our client, Allen Davis, knows all too well. On February 23, 2013, Allen suffered a traumatic brain injury and skull fracture after being impaled by parts of NASCAR driver Kyle Larson’s No. 32 racecar. It went airborne and through the cable fencing on the last lap of the Nationwide Series opener, a day before the Daytona 500, at Daytona International Speedway.

Allen’s catastrophic injuries, as well as the injuries of another 32 spectators from that day ignited a serious discussion and investigation into safety concerns at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) and restrictor plate racing in general.  The result was a massive overhaul of the cable fencing and crossover gates, an area which was shown needed major improvement by two engineering firms hired by DIS.  But just last month, less than 18 months later, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway find themselves under renewed scrutiny following Austin Dillion’s No. 3 race car sailing into the grandstands at almost the identical spot, injuring at least 13 spectators on the final lap of Coke Zero 400 on July 5th.

Fan injuries occur at baseball and hockey games, from a foul ball or a rogue hockey puck, result in broken noses or concussions.  However, making headlines as of late are reports of  severe injuries, some even fatal, to fans at NASCAR races.  Simply put, when racecars or even their parts go airborne into the grandstand, the results can be deadly.  While the number of  injuries at baseball and hockey games is higher, more fatalities and serious injuries occur to spectators at auto racing events.  From 1990-2002, 29 spectators have been killed by cars or flying parts, and another 70 have been injured, at the Daytona Beach Racetrack alone, which doesn’t include the 33 fans injured in 2013 and the 13 in the July 5 incident.

While crashes on the racetrack are expected, a racecar leaving the track and flying into the grandstands is not, and the risk is rising.  This situation is compounded by the metal cable fencing that surrounds the track. This fencing, while designed to prevent flying debris, can actually make it worse. When metal vehicle pieces are hurdling through the air at high speeds, this cabling can inadvertently function as a shredder, breaking up the pieces and allowing them to come through the fence toward vulnerable fans on the other side. Critics complain that NASCAR is putting its fans at serious risk and is not doing enough to ensure their safety.

Daytona International Speedway is investing in its infrastructure and fan experience to lure fans into the grandstands and increase ticket NASCAR crash thru fencesales.  DAYTONA Rising is a $400 million reimagining of Daytona International Speedway. At the conclusion of the redevelopment, Daytona International Speedway will have approximately 101,000 permanent, wider and more comfortable seats, twice as many restrooms and three times as many concessions. In addition, the Speedway will feature more than 60 luxury suites with track side views and a completely revamped hospitality experience for corporate guests. But how much of that $400 million is going into protecting fans from getting an experience that they didn’t bargain for? How can spectators of NASCAR events be protected while balancing the integrity of the sport, which is by its very nature, dangerous?

In the realm of spectator safety, other professional sports have taken measures to minimize risk. Major League Baseball has done a great deal to protect fans, all ballparks are required to have nets shielding the most susceptible seats directly behind home plate.  Hockey has protective glass around the rinks, and the NHL implemented mandatory safety netting behind the glass and to the sides of both ends of the rink after Brittanie Cecil was killed after a puck was deflected into the stands and struck her in the left temple.

The question for NASCAR and motor speedways: how many people have to die or become seriously injured like our client Allen Davis before progressive changes are made to the way the game is played?

H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, said, “I think every good track operator knows his first responsibility is to protect the spectator.”

“Fans should not have to go to a race and ever risk being injured while enjoying something that they love,” said Sam Gualardo, past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, a group that has examined ways to make racing safer. He says Daytona’s current catch fence “is not doing its job.”

NASCAR destroyed fencePerhaps the answer to NASCAR and motor speedways is instead of just continuing to build higher fences and moving seats, they should take a hard look at preventing the crashes which lead to vehicles becoming airborne in the first place. Whether through changing horsepower restrictions or speed rules, NASCAR could certainly prevent some of these crashes by taking a long hard look at the rules in restrictor plate racing.

So what is restrictor plate racing? In brief, it’s a device that limits the motor’s power output, slowing acceleration and maximum speed. Although you might think this is a good way to slow races down and hence, a good safety measure, it often has the opposite effect. In these types of races, drivers tend to form tight “packs” of cars that are clumped together for the majority of the race, reducing air resistance and actually allowing the cars to run faster and making drafting easier.

After Austin Dillon’s recent crash, many notable NASCAR drivers have become increasingly vocal about the safety at Daytona International Speedway and restrictor plate racing, “NASCAR got what they wanted,” driver Ryan Newman told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s the end of it. Cars getting airborne, unsafe drivers, same old stuff. They just don’t listen.” Asked whether Dillon’s wreck might effect change, Newman referenced the death of RCR driver Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, “They just don’t pay attention to safety. Simple as that,” Newman said.

Dayonta 500 winner Joey Logano agreed, “There isn’t much good to say about what happened here tonight,” he said, “It is a product of the racing here. I just heard (Dillon) up in the catch fence, and motors were flying out of cars. That isn’t the first time that has happened here and it is just dumb that we allow it to happen more than once.”

“It is literally like a video game out there these days, except for it’s real life,” future NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon said. “It’s crazy. It’s really crazy. I love Daytona. This place has been amazing for me. I can’t believe this is my final race here, but after going through that experience I’m glad I only have one more restrictor-plate race left.”

Restrictor plates have been accused of causing more accidents which can still put the driver and the spectators in danger if those big wrecks happen in front of the grand stands. It’s time for NASCAR to take action. They may face initial criticism, but the benefits most certainly outweigh the risks. The fans are what keep NASCAR going and protecting their safety at races is paramount.

NASCAR multicar crashUnfortunately, litigation often has to be the catalyst to change. Hopefully Allen Davis’ experience and resulting tragedy will not be in vain and will start a serious discussion leading to marked changes with NASCAR protecting fans as much as they protect their drivers. As we pursue justice for Allen Davis, we will continue to bring to light these safety issues and fight until changes are made.

For more information on our NASCAR safety efforts, email me at dai@cokerlaw.com.

[Posted by Partner Daniel Iracki]