This Sunday’s Pepsi 400 marks the ninth year that I’ve been a NASCAR fan. I watched the 2006 summer Daytona race with my mom and grandma, mostly against my will, and then I was hooked. Since then I’ve been to Daytona plenty of times, including the past three Daytona 500s, and claim it as my favorite track.
And this year, this happened.
I was there for Kyle Larson’s wreck in 2013, which was terrifying on its own. We were pretty far from the point of impact, but we knew people sitting there and heard from them that it was a bad, bad scene. I’ll never forget how quiet the place got, how many ambulances left the track as we boarded our tour bus, and the frantic texts I got from friends and family asking if we were okay, if we’d been injured in that scary crash they saw on TV. Of course, fans were injured and safety improvements were taken.
But then, I was also there for Kyle Busch’s wreck last year, almost right in front of where he hit the wall. We watched him careen towards the wall, watched the wall physically crack with the impact, borrowed binoculars to see what was going on with him.
I wasn’t there for Austin Dillon’s terrifying wreck, but for me it just kind of wraps up this general idea: Daytona is dangerous. I love being there on those hallowed grounds; I feel like I know the town like the back of my hand. But it’s dangerous and I don’t think anyone knows how to fix it.
When Larson wrecked, they secured the fences. When Busch wrecked, they installed more SAFER barriers. What will they do after Dillon’s wreck? What can they do? What more is there to be done? Some have offered up a Plexiglas wall as an option, which takes me right back to my Zoo Tycoon days of building exhibits out of crappy chain-link fences until I had enough for the clear glass walls. What would it be like to watch the race like a zoo, like the cars were animals that we couldn’t touch? Would it be better or worse? Would it be safer but not as enjoyable?
I don’t think anyone really knows what to do except improve the specific thing that has been breached, which is an appropriate response but not always adequate. We have no idea what terrifying wreck will happen next, which is part of the thrill as well as the dread of Daytona.
I’ve got to say, though, I’d still love to be there next year.