Most injured fans out of hospital, but impacts of race crash linger

UPDATE A reader writes, Reading's reprint of the Daytona newspaper story on the recovery of selected fans injured in Kyle Larson's Nationwide crash brought back intense memories. I was an avid 7-year old Indy car (USAC in those days) fan when my Dad took my brother and I to the 1973 Indy 500. Wanting the best for his kids and not knowing the intricacies of IMS, my Dad bought front row seats a bit toward turn 4 from the start/finish line. In those days, the seats were folding chairs and only a small patch of grass and the catch fencing separated us from the track. We were mesmerized as drivers came to the fence to mingle with the fans during pre-race festivities. During the rain delay that morning, we spoke with Mario Andretti. Bobby Unser, Bill Vukovich, and others.

We were beyond excited once the weather cleared and pace laps began. As we were huge fans of the VPJ Superteam, we focused on following the start of Al Unser, Mario, and Joe Leonard– all of whom had qualified relatively poorly due to the bizarre and slow VPJ car design that year. As the green flag flew, everything became a blur. The cars raced toward turn 1, but flames and smoke filled the air. In addition, the three of us felt intense burning and heat around us. It was as if invisible bugs were eating away at our faces. I was confused as I had never had this feeling at the other Indy car races I had attended. Ambulances appeared right in front of us and some medical personnel came into the stands. We later learned that we had facial burns caused by the methanol fuel. We had no idea of the number of cars involved in the crash, who was involved in the crash, or the condition of any of the drivers or fans. The scene was chaotic. Fans scrambled everywhere with no organization whatsoever. The track's response was probably state of the art for 1973, but far less organized and, likely, less effective than that of Daytona in 2013.

Fittingly, the rain began again shortly after the crash and the race was delayed. We arrived back at our hotel some hours later, and only then learned of the severity of the accident and Salt Walther's injuries. My Dad was visibly shaken and demanded that we leave Indianapolis immediately. We never returned to watch Gordon Johncock win that tragedy-marred race.

While I attended many Indy car races in the interim, I didn't return to Indy until 1987– to view the glorious and lucky fourth win by my childhood hero, Al Unser. I have had the privilege of attending many Indy 500s since then, and now have the pleasure of taking my 2 boys to the race. Of course, the track is far safer for spectators than it was in 1973; we have also learned that, for seat location at Indy (and most other tracks), the higher the better.

My heart goes out to the injured Daytona fans. I wish them speedy healing and continued passion for the sport that they love. At least from my experience, time heals. I hope that, one day, all of the injured fans will choose to return to view live auto racing. There is no spectator sport that rivals the thrill of auto racing and I hope they get to experience the thrill once again. Kenneth A. Ehrlich

03/06/13 A flying strip of metal knocked Steve Johnson into the row behind him in the grandstands of Daytona International Speedway.

He was in a state of shock. As he lay bleeding on the concrete from a head wound, a retired volunteer fire chief named "Smokey" removed his T-shirt and used it to stop the bleeding.

His wife, Gaylene, sat a few feet away with a gash in her arm that exposed the bone. An off-duty firefighter put pressure on her arm to slow the bleeding.

Because Gaylene takes blood thinners, she is certain she would have bled to death without the kindness of a stranger.

As soon as the two real estate agents from Leslie, Mich., were released from Halifax Health Medical Center last week, their search began for the two men who had stayed by the couple's side during those terrifying moments.

"If it wasn't for those fans, one of us might not be here right now," Gaylene, 60, said Friday.

Steve Johnson's search ended Saturday morning when a reporter from New York connected him with New York resident Doug "Smokey" Horton via email.

"I was really happy to have finally found him," Johnson said.

Despite sitting in the top of the Campbell seating section, nearly 75 feet from the racetrack, the couple was injured during the last lap of the Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race when Kyle Larson's car crashed into a safety fence, spraying tires, metal and other debris into the stands Feb. 23.

During the last moments of the race, Steve and Gaylene stood up and looked to their right to watch Tony Stewart cross the finish line. A few seconds later, they heard a huge explosion and were blindsided by flying debris.

Horton, who was unhurt, looked up from his seat several rows below and ran to help Steve. As dust and panic swirled around the grandstands, the men helped the couple stay calm by making small talk and assuring them that help was on the way.

"I jumped up to help (Steve)," Horton recalled. "He was bleeding from the head so I took off my shirt because there was nothing else. I got him to lie down to control the blood."

The strangers who helped the Johnsons slipped away after an ambulance crew took over and transported them to Halifax. During their three-day stay at the hospital, Steve received more than 30 stitches in his head. Gayle spent two nights in the intensive care unit and had 30 stitches placed in her left arm.

Steve wrote an email to Horton thanking him for what he had done. Horton's reply included a picture of himself wearing a much too small child's size Daytona Beach T-shirt. "I bought this to replace the one I lost," Horton joked.

The two men said they plan to stay in touch.

"It's a good feeling, but it's also about hearing that they are in good shape," Horton said about connecting with Steve. "It will probably be a relationship that never goes away. I'm sure there will be Christmas cards sent each year."

The experience might have shaken up the couple, but they said they aren't going to let it taint their favorite sport. If anything, they've become more devoted fans after a hospital visit from NASCAR drivers Tony Stewart and Scott Lagasse. The Johnsons said they didn't realize until much later that Stewart skipped the traditional victory celebration out of concern for the injured fans.

"I think there is a connection between fans and driver," Gaylene said. "We follow them and know about their families and where they live. The fact that they would show that same concern for us is very humbling."

Because of their injuries Steve and Gaylene are unable to make the 18-hour car trip to Michigan and have decided to extend their vacation for another week.

"We are going to recuperate here in Florida where it is warmer," Steve said.

If given the option, the couple says they wouldn't have a problem sitting in the same section in the future.

"Life is a risk," Steve said. "Every day you take risks. You just never know what's going to happen."

ā€”Lacey McLaughlin

'Tornado' in stands breaks up brothers' race vacation

Eddie Huckaby was supposed to be trackside with his brother for the Daytona 500.

Instead, he watched the race from a hospital bed at Halifax Health Medical Center with two large gashes in his left leg. He's now recovering at his mother's home in Tennessee, and it's still difficult for Huckaby to walk.

Huckaby was sitting about a dozen rows up in the Campbell section of Daytona International Speedway when cars started piling up on the last lap of the Nationwide race Feb. 23.

"It was like a tornado just passed by in three seconds," said Huckaby, a 53-year-old engineer who lives in Denton, Texas.

He looked down at his leg, and blood had soaked his jeans. Huckaby said a piece of the catch fence that is supposed to protect fans flew up into the stands and sliced two gashes into his leg ā€” one was an 8-inch-long cut and the other was 2 inches.

He recalled feeling faint and asking to lie down. For a time, he worried an artery had been severed, and he was bleeding to death.

Reconstructing the crash, Huckaby said NASCAR should focus its efforts on a gate in the fence that allows fans to enter and leave the grandstands.

"I think the gate was definitely a weak link in that place," Huckaby said.

NASCAR officials are investigating the crash with a special focus on the gate, and looking to see whether safety improvements need to be made.

The trip to Daytona was supposed to be a time for Huckaby to bond with his older brother, Terry Huckaby, 61. The two planned the visit after another brother died.

Now that he's recovering, Eddie Huckaby doesn't want to hire a lawyer, but he'd like NASCAR to pay his medical bills and reimburse him for missing the Daytona 500. He met with a Speedway official at the hospital who told him the track's insurance company would be in contact.

"If something happened in my house, I'd feel a responsibility," he said.

He'd watch a race again, he said, but only if his seat is far up in the stands.

Jeff Paltrow returned from the Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway with some unexpected souvenirs and bruising that looks like a punch in the gut from a lug nut.

If it was a lug nut, though, Paltrow didn't find it. Instead, during a recent interview, Paltrow picked up from his kitchen table two fragments of a brake rotor severed from Kyle Larson's Chevrolet as it crashed on the final lap of the DRIVE4COPD 300 and flipped into the safety fence three rows in front of Paltrow.

He also brought back a small tube, an unidentified piece of mangled aluminum and a big purple bruise on his abdomen.

Paltrow, 64, and his friend Garry Blough, 65, both of DeLand, spoke with the News-Journal in an interview attended by their lawyer Ty Lynch of Morgan and Morgan. Lynch said at this point they are gathering information and have not reached a decision on legal action. Morgan and Morgan is representing at least one other fan besides Paltrow and Blough.

The two friends were sitting next to each other in the third row on Feb. 23 as the race cars roared down the track on the last lap.

Then Larsen's car went airborne, came right at them and exploded into the fence.

"When it happened, it was like somebody set off a bomb, is best I can explain it," Paltrow said.

"Right before we realized anything, little sprinkles of stuff were coming down and all of the sudden I got whacked," Paltrow said and then gestured toward his buddy Blough. "He got whacked. And then we saw everything coming over the fence. Saw the car coming, side flip up, saw the engine come through."

He saw the engine catch fire. People were screaming and yelling.

"And I mean everybody was going nuts. Everybody was going absolutely nuts," he said.

"You felt like you were in a war zone," Blough said. "You hear this great big crash. It's like an explosion then you seen pieces flying everywhere. I mean, basically, you only had a few seconds to figure this out, what was going on."

Something smacked Paltrow on the left side, tattooing a red circle about the size of a quarter or so on his belly. Nearly a week later the red circle was still there with a smaller circle inside, but bruising had spread and enlarged.

Paltrow said he thinks he was struck by a lug nut, which are used to keep wheels in place. Had the object's trajectory been a few feet higher, striking him in the face, his injuries would have been much worse, he said.

"It was like getting hit with a baseball bat," he said.

His friend Blough said he saw what appeared to be a round computer chip, which, based on its shape, might have been what hit Paltrow. Another man was picking it up, but Blough asked him for the chip.

"I said I think my buddy got hit with that," Blough said.

"The guy wouldn't give it up," Paltrow said and chuckled.

Blough said he got hit in the left leg, the left ribs and a shoulder blade as he turned around during the crash.

Blough and Paltrow, with the chunks of brake rotor in his pocket, were driven in individual ambulances to Halifax Health Medical Center of Port Orange.

Paltrow said the first-responders did a good job.

"It was very well orchestrated from the medical standpoint, the response was excellent," Paltrow said. "There's no question about that. But it still never should have happened."

The men spent several hours getting treated for their injuries before being released and driven back to their car at the track by NASCAR representatives.

Paltrow and Blough said they were told that NASCAR would pick up the medical bills for their treatment. But they have not been contacted by NASCAR since, and they are worried about who will pay for follow-up treatment.

Both men said they are longtime race fans, but they gave away their tickets and skipped the Daytona 500 the following day.

"I'm not sure if I'm ever going to go back to tell you the truth, the way I feel right now," Blough said. Daytona Beach News Journal

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