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Wreck debris injures fans at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH — At least 33 people were injured Saturday during a NASCAR race when a car flew into the fence at Daytona International Speedway, hurling a tire and large pieces of debris into the stands.

The incident, which resulted in no fatalities, happened on the last lap of the second-tier Nationwide series race.

Local officials said 19 people were taken to neighboring hospitals. Two arrived in critical condition — one of which was a child — but all were later listed as stable. None of the injuries were life-threatening, ESPN reported.

Speedway president Joie Chitwood said 14 people were treated on site, and 14 others were taken to hospitals.

As the field approached the finish for the Drive4COPD 300, leader Regan Smith tried to block Brad Keselowski's charge. That triggered a chain reaction, and rookie Kyle Larson hit the cars in front of him and went airborne into the fence.

The front end was sheared off of Larson's car, and his burning engine wedged through a gaping hole in the fence. Chunks of debris from the car were thrown into the stands, including a tire that cleared the fence and landed midway up the spectator section closest to the track.

The fencing served its primary purpose, catapulting Larson's car back onto the track. But it didn't keep potentially lethal shards from flying into the stands.

Larson, 20, stood in shock but uninjured several yards from his car as fans in the stands waved frantically for help. Smoke from the burning engine briefly clouded the area.

Ambulance sirens could be heard wailing behind the grandstands at a time the winner would typically be celebrating.

"It was freaky. When I looked to my right, the accident happened," said Rick Harpster of Orange Park, who said he had a bird's-eye view. "I looked over and I saw a tire fly straight over the fence into the stands, but after that I didn't see anything else. That was the worst thing I have seen, seeing that tire fly into the stands."

Track workers could be seen repairing the large section of fence where Larson hit, and on the wall that was damaged.

"First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans," Chitwood said. "Following the incident we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately."

As emergency workers tended to injured fans, a somber Tony Stewart skipped the usual victory celebration.

The accident spread into the upper deck and emergency crews treated fans on both levels. There were five stretchers that appeared to be carrying fans out, and a helicopter flew overhead.

"It's a violent wreck. Just seeing the carnage on the racetrack, it's truly unbelievable," driver Justin Allgaier said.

"I love the sport," said Shannan Devine, who witnessed the carnage from her 19th-row seat, about 250 feet away. "But no one wants to get hurt over it."

The wreck was eerily reminiscent of Bobby Allison's in 1987 at Talladega, in which his car, traveling more than 200 mph, sailed in the air and ripped open a section of catch fence. That prompted NASCAR to slow the cars and the sanctioning body came up with restrictor plates, which are used at high-speed tracks Daytona and Talladega and which many drivers blame for incidents like Saturday's.

Larson said that once his car was hit twice, he was along for the ride.

"I was getting pushed from behind, I felt like, and by the time my spotter said lift or go low, it was too late," Larson said. "Had some flames come in the cockpit, but luckily I was all right and could get out of the car quick."

His car appeared to hit where the crossover gate — a section that can be opened for people to travel back and forth from the infield to the grandstands — is located in the fence.

There were no injuries among the 12 drivers involved in the crash. All were examined at the infield care center and released.

"When the car hit, debris went everywhere," Terry Huckaby, 61, told the Orlando Sentinel. "It was like a war zone there."

Huckaby of Tennessee told the Sentinel that his brother Eddie Huckaby, 53, of Texas was hurt when a piece of metal about 3 feet long tore a gash from his hip to his knee. He was recovering late Saturday.

Officials said today's Daytona 500 would go on as scheduled after repairs.

But Keselowski said the incident could cast a pall.

"I think until we know exactly the statuses of everyone involved, it's hard to lock yourself into the 500," he said. "Hopefully, we'll know soon and hopefully everyone's okay. And if that's the case, we'll start focusing on (today)."

Wreck debris injures fans at Daytona 02/23/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:22am]

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