History is repeating itself, once again. Stemming from the horrific crash and multiple traumatic injuries to its fans last Saturday, February 23, 2013, official NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway are engaged in official message spin control. They are predictably adhering to the motor-sports’ industry’s time-tested and rehearsed script of proclaiming a tireless dedication to spectator safety while also de-minimizing the frequency of wheel assemblies and other crash debris flipping into the grand-stands, maiming its fans as a “freak accident.”
Meanwhile and predictably, NASCAR is aggressively engaged in evidence damage control by blocking YouTube from airing spectator footage of the incident, proclaiming that the content of the footage is protected by Copyright. But NASCAR did not block off all of the evidence….yet. Currently, video evidence (and first-hand accounts reported) document that a wheel assembly did, in fact, clear the catch fencing system and maimed spectators.
The real reason why neither NASCAR nor Daytona want anyone viewing this footage is because it contains raw, undeniable evidence that the catch-fencing was — when compared to industry standards and existing designs — grossly out-of-date and not safe. Since 1909, fans have been struck and maimed by crash debris flying over “safety walls” and “catch fencing.” See, generally, Crashes & Collisions, by Michael Benson, Chelsea House Publishers; see also ESPN’s recent historical account and reporting of Saturday’s incident.
In 1987, the gravity of this known danger of poorly designed catch-fencing systems was exposed. During the Thursday, May 7, 1987, time-trials for the Indy 500, one of Roger Penske’s race cars crashed into the concrete wall at turn 4, shedding its right front wheel. Hungness, Carl (1987). The 1987 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook. Carl Hungness Publishing.(there also exists, actual video footage of this incident with Roger Penske witnessing its occurrence). The wheel assembly careened over the catch fence and into the grandstands. Fortunately – then – no one was seated in the grandstands. Days later, Indy’s luck ran out when Race-car driver, Tony Bettenhausen’s wheel assembly flew over the catch fence and killed Lyle Kurtenbach. The height of the crash wall at Indy was 31 inches and the catch fence system was 14 feet. In 1993, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway underwent major renovations and safety improvement. The crash wall height was increased to 42 and the catch fence to 19 feet, 18 inches coupled with increased arcing over and above the racetrack.
Despite this history and industry knowledge, Penske Motorsports, Inc. and Michigan International Speedway, did nothing to modify, improve or make safer its catch fencing system. Its crash wall remained at 48 inches and catch fence only at 11 feet. And the consequence of that failure proved horrific when, on July 26, 1998, race car driver Adrian Fernandez crashed into the wall at turn 4, and his car’s wheel assembly careened over the fence into the grandstands, killing three spectators and maiming several others.
After this horrible incident, in August of 1998, the Michigan International Speedway hurriedly implemented safety modifications to its fencing system that were readily known and available to the industry. The fence was raised to 17 feet above the wall, still shorter than Indy’s improvements. The arcing or overhang was also extended by 4 additional feet. As a motorsports industry, then CART (now merged with Indy Racing League) implemented tethering of wheel assemblies to prevent or reduce further detachment.
The bottom line for NASCAR has to be spectator safety. There have been too many injuries over too many years for another lack-luster response.
Mr. Smith has practiced as a trial attorney since graduating Notre Dame Law School in 1992. He has litigated cases across the country including cases from Ventura County, California to Middlesex County, New Jersey. He practices in both State and Federal courts.