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Murto: Fan safety essential at race track

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By Craig Murto

Nearly 30 fans were injured at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday when parts of Kyle Larson's car penetrated the catch fence, some flying into the crowd. Half of those injured were admitted into local hospitals, two -- including one minor -- in critical condition.

Some argue that the fence did its job, and in a way that's true; Larson's entire car did not fly in the grandstands. But fans should be able to attend a motorsports event without worrying about personal injury from flying debris.

Part of the problem in the Daytona accident was that the car struck the fence at a crossover gate, at just the proper angle to rip the front of the car to shreds. Crews worked overnight to repair the fence so the Daytona 500 could be run the next day, and the "new" fence was without that crossover.

NASCAR will take a close look at the incident, not only to determine what -- if anything -- they can do to better protect the fans, but also to see if there is anything they can do to keep cars from ripping to shreds in such impacts. Safety is always a moving target, and unfortunately all too often it takes tragedy to show us where improvements can be made. Hopefully something good can come out of this.

A tire and suspension assembly from Larson's car landed in the 20th row. Maybe it's time for NASCAR to take the action IndyCar has taken at high-speed, high-banked ovals and simply not allow seating in the lower section. Perhaps tracks such as Daytona and Talladega -- as well as Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas and others where cars hit close to 200 mph -- need to keep the lower 30 rows empty. It's not like the races are selling out these days anyway, and the last thing the sport needs is to injure its spectators.

American oval racing isn't the only form of motorsport that needs to take a look at spectator safety. Sometimes spectators at outdoor motocross events or motorcycle enduros are too close for comfort should a rider lose control and a motorcycle head toward the crowd. And for all the arrogance the FIA exhibits when it inspects and "condemns" our short tracks as unsafe, it hardly does enough to protect fans of World Rally. They often get as close to the action as possible, in what appears to be an attempt to see the wart on the driver's nose as he races past at the edge of control.

Motorsports are always going to be dangerous. And just as you can get struck in the face or head by a flying baseball or hockey puck at those sporting events -- and those incidents do happen, sometimes with dire consequences -- there will be times motorsports fans are victims of accidents. It is inevitable, due to the nature of the sport.

But we have to do all we can to keep our fans safe, and then do even more. As stated earlier, safety is a moving target. Those in charge of such things need to aim ahead of the target, so that fan safety achieves the same success as recent efforts toward driver safety. The drivers and pit crew, etc. -- those working in racing -- assume the risk; the paying spectator should not.

Everybody knows the statistics as to how safe air travel is, yet when an airplane crashes it makes headline news because it is so spectacular and usually involves numerous people. It's the same way with motorsports; thousands and thousands of events carry on with no spectator injury related to the event, but when it does happen -- as in Daytona on Saturday -- it is spectacular and involves numerous people. And that becomes the impression left on people who know nothing about our sport, just as there are those afraid to fly. Nobody reports when no fan is injured.

The sanctioning organizations that race on high-speed ovals need to take a close look at what happened in Daytona. They need to determine whether they can upgrade the catch fence so that nothing ever enters the grandstand again, or they must determine to keep the fans at a safer distance. Injuring spectators cannot be acceptable; keeping them safe is a priority.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.



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