NASCAR’s O’Donnell talks fan safety research plans

NASCAR has made specific plans to look at improving at fan safety at its events, specifically at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, following an incident on the final lap of the Nationwide Series race at Daytona on Feb. 23 in which the front end of a car was sheared off, pierced the catchfence and wound up on the fan side of the fence, injuring several spectators. NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell held a press conferent at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2, detailing NASCAR’s upcoming plans to look into what happened at Daytona and develop solutions to prevent a repeat incident. Below, is the transcript from that press conference:

STEVE O’DONNELL: I wanted to give everyone an update from last Saturday’s accident in Daytona.

First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those who were injured. Most, if not all, have been released. I think you all have heard from Halifax Health there are two remaining patients in the hospital but we’re optimistic on their release as well.

As everybody knows, safety is first and foremost not only for NASCAR and our racetracks, but getting that right and making sure our fans can enjoy the most safe and entertaining environment possible. I think our history speaks to that.

Moving forward based on what happened in Daytona, we met immediately with the folks at Daytona International Speedway. We’ve had multiple meetings this week. It’s been a truly collaborative effort with the goal of doing two things: obviously looking at what happened in this incident, but more importantly the go-forward plan of what we can learn and what we want to implement as we go forward.

So a couple updates on where we’re at to date.

The 32 car and the parts have obviously been secured by NASCAR. Unlike other incidents where just a car and a driver was involved, and we immediately bring that car back to the R&D center, in that case that car remained in Daytona. The purpose of that was to allow the folks from Daytona and their experts to take a look at the car, see what if anything they could glean from that investigation and apply that to their initial thoughts looking at the fencing.

The car is in the process of being brought up to the R&D center. That will involve a couple of things that we’re going to look at.

The first step for us as we reviewed it prior to going to the R&D center, important to note that most of the safety elements in that car did their job. The driver, as you saw, walked away. The car, however, got up into the fence. Our focus is going to be if the elements in the car did their job, what do we need to do to the impact to the fence, what happened once that car impacted the fence.

Once the car gets up to the R&D center, we have a number of experts there that who will do a number of things. First we’ll bring in the race team. That car was impounded. The team hasn’t had a chance to look at that car. We want to bring in that team and talk about how the car was fabricated, what we can learn jointly as they look at the car and what we see as well.

The next steps will be putting that car back together. We’ll use any and all technology we can, video, cameras. The benefit to us in this situation is if you look at Daytona, all the camera angles, all the video technology that’s out there, we have the most technology we’ve ever had to be able to apply to this incident. So we’re going to use that and apply that and hopefully learn from that as well.

We’ll go through each part of the car. Want to look at how everything held up that was in the car, the cockpit, the tethers. There’s been talk if the tethers broke away or not. They did not. When you look at the car, the part that the car was tethered to sheared the car. That’s something we have to look at in advance. We’ve tethered a number of different things and added things to the safety aspects of the car, but what do we need to do in addition to that when we look at this accident specifically.

We’re also going to bring in outside experts. I think everyone is familiar with us working with Dr. Dean Sickling. We have a partnership with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the SAFER barriers came together. We’ll enlist both of those parties as part of this process.

It’s important to note, too, looking at fencing and outside engineering is going to have to be a third aspect we’re going to have to apply. We’ll use the best and brightest, enlist those folks going forward. We think it will validate our findings and find a peer review we can go to.

Concurrently with all this, Daytona International Speedway is looking at the fencing, bringing in their experts. They’re also in the process of bringing in an outside firm to analyze what was in place and look to what we may need to do going forward.

Really a two-phase process we’re looking at. Superspeedway racing with Daytona and Talladega is going to be the first concentration for us. We have a race coming up in May at Talladega. Anything we can learn in the immediate future that can be applied to Talladega, we’ll do that.

The second phase is all of our racetracks. We race on a number of different facilities, as you all know. Each of those tracks is unique, different speeds, different banking. All those factors need to be thought through as you look to make any changes that may be recommended. First and foremost it will be Talladega.

No set timetable as to when this will be completed other than the fact that we know the race is coming up in May. So anything we can do we’ll apply in May.

But when you talk about safety, I think Jeff Burton said it best yesterday: There’s no goal of safety or no end goal of safety; it’s something we work on each and every day.

Same with this process. If there’s something we can find out tonight, we’ll apply that. If it’s two months from now, we’ll apply that as well. No set timetable. But rest assured we’ll be back to you quickly as we find results and things we can implement.

Three other things I wanted to quickly touch on that are topics that are out there.

Michael Annett was injured in a crash at Daytona, an injury that we have not seen for some time now. We’re going to look through that car. Happy to report that Michael went to surgery and is released. That’s something we have to take a hard look at and make sure things worked for Michael. Anything we can improve on we will.

The story out there about Jeremy Clements. No secret we did suspend Jeremy. We believe strongly we made the right decision there. Our go-forward plan with Jeremy is to employ Dr. Richard Lapchick, have him work with Dr. Richard Lapchick and get him back in a racecar as soon as we deem fit.

Last but not least, this is the first true test of the Gen-6 car. Like the feedback. Robin has put in a heck of a lot of work in the car. This week and next week in Vegas is going to be a good indicator of where we’re at. We’re getting a lot of good feedback from the drivers. We’re excited about what we’re going to see today with two races and obviously tomorrow.

Q. I know you have a lot of work to do with the fencing. A couple of things have been mentioned. Some sort of plastic apparatus to cover the fencing to prevent debris from going through. There’s also been a mention at Daytona and Talladega of possibly removing some seating rows and having in effect double fencing in the grandstand areas, two barriers. What are you thinking on those without knowing all the facts?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think the last part of your question is a contributing factor: really far too early. We’ve got to do the investigation and do it right. We don’t want to come to a quick conclusion that doesn’t bring in every factor that contributed to this incident.

There are certainly a number of suggestions out there. I think we’ll look at any and all of them. But to do this right, we’ve got to take the time to reconstruct the car, reconstruct the fence, reconstruct the accident, then go out and say, Okay, here is what we know what happened and what would prevent that moving forward.

Q. This may be premature. Both Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske after the wreck said they had never seen the front clip sheared off the car like that. Can you suggest why that might have happened?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Still early, as the car is getting to the R&D center. I can tell you specific focus on the gate and placement of gates, particularly at it pertains to Talladega. But still early. That’s part of the process where we bring the team in and talk about car construction, then bring our experts, Tom Gideon, John Patalak, to look at that in tandem with the team and see what might have happened.

Q. Is it possible that restrictor plates be open to discussion because some of the drivers said, in general, in Cup and Nationwide, if we had some more horsepower to do some more passing, it might change the nature of the pack. My question is, the issue of restrictor plates open for further discussion in the safety review?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think as part of the review, we’ll look at everything. But I think it’s important to note that we’ve raced there for 55 years. We’ve had a number of safe races. Hopeful this is a one-time incident.

So that’s kind of the tact we’ll take. We certainly will not rule anything out as we go into it, but we’re comfortable running the race at Talladega and Daytona with restrictor plates.

Q. You mentioned in the Michael Annett situation looking at the car. Will you also look at his health and could that possibly have some effect in how NASCAR looks at drivers before the start of a season, what they require to make sure they’re not susceptible to those types of injuries?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think it’s probably important to kind of review what we require prior to every season. Each driver passes a complete physical and lets us know of their health and safety.

Our medical liaisons have complete files on every one of our drivers going into a race. We would not allow someone to race who we thought was not fit to race.

I think what would be helpful with this is knowing the process we have in place and the people we have in place with the liaison team, with our doctor’s panel.

I think we’re in a better position than ever to work with Michael, talk about what happened, what he experienced, and the recovery phase, make sure we’re in tandem. We’ll certainly learn from that. We’ve learned from every incident we’ve had. It’s never something we want to go through. I think each time we’ve learned something new to apply to the racecar or the driver safety system.

Q. Have you confirmed whether the tire on Larson’s car went through the fence or over the fence?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Again initial. Everything we’ve seen is it went through. When you look at that car, the way it pivoted going into the fence, all four tires are on there. We think it would be impossible for the tire to come back and go back over the fence.

Everything we’ve seen so far says it went through that gate area. I wouldn’t completely rule it out until we look at every piece of video. But all our initial reactions, including those from the R&D center, indicate it went through the fence.

Q. You mentioned outside experts like Dr. Sickling. How can they help you in situations of fencing and are there fencing experts in situations like this?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Daytona is a good example. In 2009, experts and engineers, outside engineers, put that fence together. The way that’s done is by taking the data that we can provide on the cars, the speeds, impacts, past crashes that we’ve had, and the fences are built on that, based on the loads, based on the weight of our cars. It’s kind of all in one.

If you look at the history of safety, where walls have evolved, where we’ve put new foam in, the next evolution is the fence. It’s all part and parcel because our cars are unique. If you look at a Formula One car versus a NASCAR vehicle, you can say we’ll employ some of the things Formula One does. Car weighs half, and the fencing is half.

How does the car react to the wall? If the car gets into the fence, what load can it take? Having those experts as part of that panel to review it we think will add that much more.

There are a lot of engineering firms out there. Some of it, I’ll tell you, is very new. There’s a lot of information out there. It’s a great time to bring all the experts together and look at this.

Q. Can you confirm that the only two people left at Halifax are the two that were critically injured? Everyone else has been released, to your knowledge?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Everyone else has been released. There’s two people still remaining at Halifax.

Q. Did you say you’re going to try to do a reconstruction of the entire crash? Who would you enlist to help you with that?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think the first part of that will be a reconstruction of the parts and pieces back on that car using video evidence to see when things came off, having the team work together with Tom Gideon to look at how the car was constructed, time that with video and try to reenact what happened to the car, then take some of that data, provide it to the Speedway and see how that may match up with what they found with investigation to the fence as well.

Q. On the fencing updates with the tracks. When NASCAR works with the tracks, how exactly and specifically do they? Is there a list of safety requirements that NASCAR presents to tracks? If so, what are the items on that list?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think it’s a joint process. So if you take a track inspection in general, NASCAR meets in January with all the tracks and goes through all the latest technology, new safety enhancements that can be brought to a track. We work together. We come in and do events inspections of all the facilities we race that. That would include walls, fencing.

Historically the tracks have been responsible for the actual fencing, but we’re going to look and make sure we’re comfortable with what is in place. We took that tact with SAFER barriers when we implemented those.

There is a long process that starts pre-season, then there is an advanced process when we come to races and events. In the morning, before anyone gets here, we have folks that walked this track and looked at it. Tonight, if anyone is around here at 8:00, we’ll have the same folks doing it in conjunction with the track.

Q. Are you aware of any fan inquiries to any NASCAR tracks, either to the ticket office or the offices in general, expressing concern about coming out to races in the aftermath of Daytona?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I am not.

Q. You talked about the focus on the gate area. Is it fair to say that you believe that the way the car went in and hit the gate played a major role in what happened? If it hit another part of the fence, it may have been a different outcome? Is that why there’s the focus on the gate area?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think it’s still too early. But I think because of where it hit, it having pieces that did get through, and it being a gate area, I think that’s really going to be the focus for us.

We’ll certainly look at fencing in general. But I think that particular area, the fact that it is a gate, did that impact it. We know the gate was locked, we know it was secure, but does that provide as much stability as the rest of the fencing.

We believed it did. But we’ve got to now take a look at that based on this impact.

– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR

Follow Stock Car Spin on Twitter @SCSblog or like Stock Car Spin on Facebook. Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner

Topics: Daytona, Kyle Larson, NASCAR, Safety

Want more from Stock Car Spin?  
Subscribe to FanSided Daily for your morning fix. Enter your email and stay in the know.