As Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line to claim his second win of the season at Daytona International Speedway, celebrating the victory was the last thing on his mind.
He had just driven the last two laps of the race focused on the traffic behind him, moving around the track as needed to protect his position when he saw the wreck unfolding in his rearview mirror.
“Oh my God,” he exclaimed when he saw the horrendous crash as Austin Dillon went airborne crashing into the catchfence. During his press conference with the media after the race, Earnhardt described the accident as, “frightening.”
He went on to say, “You’re just on the verge of tears, to be honest with you, because I think that the first thing that goes through your mind is, I saw everything in the mirror pretty clearly, and that car really went up in the air pretty high, and he hit the, I could just see that it was a black object that hit that fence, and so I’m assuming I’m looking at the undercarriage of the car. I’ve never seen… I’ve never really seen a roll cage handle those catch fences very well, and I just was very scared for whoever that was. I didn’t even know what car it was, so I was just very scared for that person.”
He was not alone in his reaction. As fans watched the No. 3 car sailing through the air, it was impossible not to reflect back on the heartbreaking incident in 2001 that took Dale Earnhardt’s life in another No. 3 car at this same track.
Crew members from the No. 88 team were among the first to reach Dillon and when they quickly gave the thumbs up sign indicating that he was okay, the racing word let out a collective sigh of relief.
Dillon was treated at the infield care center and released. He suffered a bruised tailbone and forearm as a result of the accident and is expected to be back racing next week at Kentucky. After viewing the almost unrecognizable carnage of his car, minus its engine which sat yards away, it seems almost miraculous.
Thirteen spectators received injuries due to debris that made its way through or over the catchfence, but eight declined treatment. Four were treated at the track and one fan was transported to the hospital, examined and quickly released. It could have been much worse.
In fact, it was, just a couple of years ago when Kyle Larson’s car hit the catchfence at Daytona during an XFINITY Series race and 28 fans were injured with 14 sent to the hospital for treatment. After the Larson accident, Daytona reinforced its fencing and the recent renovations at the track have moved the seating further back in an effort to prevent just such injuries.
Dillon voiced concerns after he was released from the infield care center, stating, “It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think. We’ve got to figure out something. Our speeds are too high, I think. I think everybody could get good racing with slower speeds. We can work at that, and then figure out a way to keep the cars on the ground. That’s the next thing. We’re fighting hard to make the racing good. I hope the fans appreciate that. We don’t, but it’s our job. You go out there and hold it wide open to the end.” He summed it up saying, “Its checkers or wreckers, you just hope you make it through.”
On the matter of safety, Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood stated that he was “proud of the fact that the fence worked” and said they will analyze the incident to “see if there are any additional things that we can learn to get better the next time.”
NASCAR chairman Brain France, said Monday during an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that, “We live and breathe delivering the closest, tightest and safest competition in the world and when we have a problem, we solve it,” France said.
While Earnhardt was obviously upset after witnessing Dillon’s wreck, he shared a different perspective, reminding us that racing is inherently dangerous and that, in reality, no amount of safety initiatives is going to change that. He suggested that the wreck was due not to a lack of safety measures but as a result of a perfect storm of particular conditions on this one day merging together to cause a singular event.
“Racing has always been very dangerous,” he began. “Fortunately for us we’ve gotten better and safer in the last 100 years. It’s changed tremendously. Hopefully, we can continue to learn and continue to get better, get safer, but there’s always going to be that danger.”
“They did a good job putting that catch fence up because that catch fence took a hell of a shot,” Earnhardt continued. “I mean, I don’t know what else you could throw at it besides what it saw tonight. So we’re just getting better at not only keeping the drivers safe but keeping the fans safe to where they can come and trust everyone to be able to enjoy an event and not be in danger.”
“I just think it’s always been dangerous, and I think that’s part of the appeal in a way that makes it exciting, but you hate to see it get to that extreme, but the potential is always there,” he explained.
“NASCAR knows a lot about this information. I myself don’t know exactly all I would like to know about it, Earnhardt said, “but there’s a speed that NASCAR would kind of like to stay under, and that’s why they incorporate all this safety into these cars like the roof slats and everything, so that when a car does get turned around, it can get under that speed and not become a flying object. But in rare occurrences where there’s an oddity how those cars collided tonight that Dillon didn’t get that chance for his car to slow down. So it just gets air under it, and it’s just going to go up in the air.”
Whichever theory you ascribe to, there’s no question that the safety of the drivers and the spectators is of utmost importance. While NASCAR strives to provide its fans with competitive racing, Dillon’s horrific crash should serve as a wake-up call. We cannot control the myriad of unforeseen circumstances that occur on any given race day, but we can, and should, minimize their impact. Above all else, safety should come first.