Kyle Larson (32) goes airborne and into the catch fence in a multi-car crash. (John Raoux / Associated…)
AVONDALE, Ariz. — One of the Indianapolis 500's darkest moments came in 1973 when the car of David "Salt" Walther crashed and spun like a pinwheel down the front straightaway.
Not only was Walther badly hurt, his broken car sprayed parts and fuel into the grandstands, injuring 12 spectators.
"Now they've started to burn the customers," Times columnist Jim Murray wrote that day, adding, "It may be time to reexamine the 'sport.'"
Forty years later, NASCAR plans its own reexamination after last week's crash at Daytona International Speedway injured more than two dozen fans in the grandstands.
As teams prepared for this weekend's races at Phoenix International Raceway, the spotlight remained on NASCAR's investigation and what changes, if any, it will make to bolster fan safety.
"We'll bring in the best and brightest" to study the accident, said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president for racing operations.
NASCAR planned to provide an update on its investigation Saturday at Phoenix International.
The Daytona crash occurred last Saturday on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race as the tightly packed field roared toward the finish line at more than 175 mph.
Kyle Larson's Chevrolet got airborne and slammed into the catch fence guarding the grandstands. The front of Larson's car was sheared off, with parts and one tire flying into the crowd. Another tire and the burning engine landed at the base of the 22-foot-high fence.
"It was a terrible experience for everyone that went through it," driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
The incident shocked viewers and raised the prospect of the unimaginable: A 3,400-pound stock car, or at least its engine, hurtling into the grandstands.
As NASCAR launches its probe, there are several factors to review: the fence's design, how close fans sit to the track, why the car's front end tore loose and the unique style of racing at Daytona, to name only a few.
"We'll look at every piece" of the car and "what came off, what didn't," O'Donnell said. "We'll look at fencing as well."
Studying all those factors will take time, said Don Andrews, executive director of the International Council of Motorsports Sciences, which works to improve racing safety.
"This needs to be scientific-based," Andrews said, noting that airplane-crash investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board typically take months. "Knee-jerk reactions most of the time do not work."
Spectators face risk in several sports. A decade ago, for instance, the National Hockey League mandated that safety netting be installed above the glass in corners and behind goals after a fan died from being hit by a puck.
The Daytona crash also pointed up the balancing act between fans' safety and their desire to be as close to the action as possible.
Fans could be moved further away, but "part of the thrill is being right down there," said Chris Rogers, a safety expert for Aon Risk Solutions, a leading insurance broker for motor-racing events.
A study by the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer found that 46 spectators died at motor-racing events nationwide between 1990 and 2010, although none of the deaths occurred at a big league NASCAR race.
It's also rare for a car to reach the grandstand fence in NASCAR's top series, but it's happened.
Bobby Allison's car went airborne and into the fence in 1987, injuring four spectators at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
That event prompted NASCAR to mandate engine adjustments to cap speeds at Talladega and Daytona — both high-speed, high-banked tracks. But a byproduct of "restrictor-plate racing," which quickly followed Allison's crash, is the cars stay bunched in packs, raising the risk of multiple-car wrecks.
In 2009, Carl Edwards' car sailed into the fence at Talladega, injuring seven spectators. That led to stronger, higher fences at Talladega and Daytona.
Yet now it's happened again. "Why did the fence fail at that particular point? That's going to be a key issue in the investigation," Andrews said.
Any changes from NASCAR might again be limited to Daytona and Talladega because it's only at those two venues that so many cars race so close together and at such high speeds.
NASCAR could try to slow the cars again or adjust rules governing how much drivers can push cars ahead of them, block cars behind them and otherwise maneuver in restrictor-plate races.
But five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, last week's Daytona 500 winner, said, "It's crazy to ask the drivers to do anything different" in restrictor-plate racing if that's the only change. If a driver is leading, "you're going to block, you have to defend."
"We need to look at all things right now" for fan safety, Johnson said. "We just have to find the right approach . . . and not create another issue."
Martin captures pole
Mark Martin won the pole position for Sunday's Phoenix race for the second consecutive year with a lap of 138.074 mph.
Martin, 54, is the second-oldest driver to win a Cup series pole. The oldest, by a few months, was Harry Gant in 1994 at Bristol, Tenn.
Kasey Kahne qualified second and Johnson third. Danica Patrick, last week's pole winner at Daytona, qualified 40th in the 43-car field.