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Fences focus after fans injured at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH — Four hours before the green flag dropped in Sunday's Daytona 500, Steve Hoss surveyed the scene from his seat in Section J, Row 7.

He watched fans pose for pictures in front of a freshly painted wall on the frontstretch and gawk at a newly installed section of fence, two big reminders of a horrific crash that happened the day before and a few yards to his right.

"It's a little weird and freaky now, knowing you're sitting right where it happened," said Hoss, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan from Chicago. "Hopefully it doesn't happen again."

NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway have begun studying how a wreck in Saturday's Nationwide race sent debris into the upper level of the track's grandstands. The debris injured at least 28 people, seven of whom remained hospitalized in stable condition Sunday. An update was unavailable Monday.

As the sport analyzes steps to prevent future accidents, experts will likely focus on the catch fences, which already were under scrutiny by NASCAR and other series.

"Probably the next step is the fencing," said Pete Hylton, motorsports engineering program director at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "That has been talked about a lot, but nobody's really charged through with a new scheme."

Last spring, IndyCar driver Oriol Servia blasted the design of catch fences months after St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon died at a wreck in Las Vegas when his head hit a pole.

After Carl Edwards' car sailed into the fence at Talladega in 2009, a NASCAR study advised Talladega and Daytona to raise their fences from 14 to 22 feet. Smith Fence in Clearwater completed that job, owner Ray Smith said Monday. Smith directed all other questions about track safety and developments to NASCAR.

Despite the discussions, no major safety changes have been developed because they would fundamentally change fans' experiences at the track.

As long as fences have holes, debris will be able to fly through them and into the stands. To eliminate that, Hylton said, speedways would have to install a clear Kevlar barrier with steel-cable reinforcement around the track while lifting the grandstands.

Those renovations would make fans safer but weaken the noise and vibrations from the speeding cars that draw crowds of more than 150,000. A Kevlar fence would also distort the cars' appearances, making it look like fans were watching through a fish bowl.

"At what point is a fan going to say, 'I should have watched this on TV?' " Hylton said.

Tampa resident Kevin Bray said he doesn't want to see major changes to the way tracks operate if they would jeopardize spectators' experiences.

"There are going to be some risks when you come," said Bray, who attended Sunday's race with his family.

Officials from at least three organizations are monitoring track construction for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 24.

Race president Tim Ramsberger said officials from IndyCar, sanctioning body Federation Internationale de l'Automobile and the event's insurance company must inspect every part of the track and fence before racing can begin.

NASCAR could consider major changes to its circuits, including eliminating the weaker cross-gates, sections of fence that open to let fans onto the track or infield. Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III, of Tampa, didn't rule out raising the stands in a renovation the speedway is already considering.

"If there are things that we can incorporate into the future, whether it's the current property now or any other redevelopment, we will," Chitwood said.

No matter what changes might come, Daytona and its high speeds will remain on the NASCAR schedule, officials said. And fans such as Hoss are likely to keep coming.

"It's a little disconcerting sitting here," Hoss said, "but it's not going to stop me from coming."

Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampbay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Ratings rise

With Danica Patrick starting from the pole, Sunday's Daytona 500 drew ratings 30 percent higher than last year. Fox had an overnight 10.0 rating (percentage of all homes with TVs) and a 22 share (percentage of TVs on at the time). The 2012 race was delayed from Sunday to Monday afternoon, then to Monday night because of rain. Sunday's race, won by Jimmie Johnson with Patrick leading laps and finishing eighth, drew the 500's highest overnight rating since 2006.

Fences focus after fans injured at Daytona 02/25/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 25, 2013 10:32pm]

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