Daytona a reminder of sport's dangers

Ralph N. Paulk
| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

I figured my eyes had deceived me as Kyle Larson crawled out of a car that had been sliced after it left the racetrack and slammed into the catch fence at Daytona International Speedway.

Incredibly, Larson escaped with only a few scratches. He didn't even limp to the infield care center while his broken Chevrolet dangled on a hook, headed to a scrap yard as its next destination.

For a while, it looked as if Larson was trying to appreciate the miracle of a spared life. Instead, he glanced into the grandstands to catch a glimpse of the carnage that spilled into a crowd dodging debris scattered about like shrapnel.

Fortunately, all 28 spectators injured in last Saturday's season-opening Nationwide Series race survived.

From a mental standpoint, it's a different story for Larson. The emotional wounds are deep, and probably won't start to heel until he climbs back into the cockpit. He will have to deal with the demons of speed that lurk in every corner, every crowded front stretch.

Larson was back behind the wheel in the Nationwide race at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday. He had no choice, really. He has to get over it, in part, because a seemingly bright future will be stalled if one horrific crash dampens his enthusiasm.

In essence, the same can be said about NASCAR fans. As Tony Stewart said after collecting the checkered flag, racing is a dangerous sport — an inherent reality for drivers who challenge the limits of their powerful machines.

We were reminded of such when Dale Earnhardt died 12 years ago in Daytona. We were shaken by that reality when Dan Wheldon — the then-reigning Indianapolis champion — died in a violent crash when his car catapulted into the catch fence at Las Vegas in 2011.

It was a sobering reminder, too, when three spectators were killed in 1999 after a tire sailed over the catch fence during an IndyCar race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Already, the lawyers have lined up. They hope to hold DIS president Joie Chitwood and NASCAR accountable for the injuries sustained by spectators.

It's too early to know how those legal efforts will turn out.

However, there's one hard truth about this near-tragic incident. The spectators, like drivers, agree to accept the sometimes-inevitable dangers of a sport in which death, destruction and mayhem are always lurking in the shadows.

The challenge facing every attorney is convincing a jury that the waiver on the back of every ticket won't survive under intense legal scrutiny.

That waiver reads: “The Holder of this ticket expressly assumes all risk incidents to the event. … and agrees that all participants, sanctioning bodies, and all employees, agents, officers, and directors of Daytona International Speedway, its affiliates and subsidiaries are hearby released from any and all claims arising from the event, including claims of negligence.”

Much will be riding on two key elements in the legal debate: whether the waiver releases NASCAR of any liability, and if the catch fence was constructed properly.

Predictably, Chitwood insisted the catch fence did its job. However, the liability question could yield a less predictable outcome. Either way, the terrifying last-lap crash should motivate NASCAR to reassess its commitment to create a safe environment for both drivers and fans.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk every Friday on TribLive Radio at 9 to 10 a.m.

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