Daytona won’t change fence after airborne crash injured fans

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JOLIET, Ill. – Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said no changes are planned to his track’s catch fence after Austin Dillon’s frightening airborne crash in July.

NASCAR and Daytona completed an analysis a few weeks after the wreck, which left five fans injured (including one who was treated and released from a hospital) from debris. Chitwood said the cables, poles and mesh fencing have been reinstalled in the approximately 60-foot section ripped apart by the impact of Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400.

“We didn’t make any changes,” Chitwood said after a news conference at Chicagoland Speedway to announce Can-Am as the sponsor of the 2016 Daytona 500 qualifying races. “We brought in our experts to review everything. It did what it’s supposed to, so we went quickly to repairing it so that we’re ready for racing.”

International Speedway Corp., the parent company of Daytona and 11 other tracks that play host to Sprint Cup races, underwent an extensive study in 2009 that resulted in rebuilding virtually all of its catchfences. Another study two years ago resulted in new crossover gate designs after more than two dozen fans were injured by Kyle Larson’s car sailing into the fence on the final lap of the 2013 Xfinity Series season opener.

As part of the $400 million Daytona Rising project scheduled for completion in February, the first few rows of the grandstands were removed and a chain-link fence was erected preventing fans from accessing the “rim road” encircling the track just beyond the fence. Chitwood said that put fans about 15 feet farther and 10 feet higher from the fence in that section (which will is expected to be a uniform distance when the finishes its 100,000-seat grandstand renovation for the 2016 Daytona 500).

“We’ve made some really nice improvements that put us in as good a position as possible when that incident occurred” with Dillon’s crash, Chitwood said. “Luckily, with really the minor incident, we felt good about where we are, but we want to get the rest of the property done.”

Dillon’s crash was the third at Daytona since 2012 in which fans were injured by airborne wrecks, all of which happened on the last lap. NASCAR official have said they are considering “policy changes” that likely would alter green-white-checkered finishes at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.

“We always think about giving our fans a great event, but part of it is being safe,” Chitwood said. “We’ve had incidents the last couple of years that aren’t fun. We don’t like that. I don’t like people leaving our property and needing medical attention.”

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said after Dillon’s crash that the next generation of catch fence might not resemble a fence. Chitwood said Daytona had shared its fence research with NASCAR in safety discussions.

“It’s tough to look at it that far in advance,” he said. “On the next generation, I don’t know what’s out there. You look at where we’ve gone walls to SAFER (barriers). You never know what’s going to happen, but there’s going to be a lot of smart people involved. I think we’re going to learn and get better along the way.

“To say today what is it going to be? I don’t know. I don’t know any of us thought what the SAFER barrier could be five years before it happened, so who knows what the future is for fencing.”