By Simon Evans
DAYTONA BEACH, Feb 24 (Reuters) - A day after a chilling crash injured about 30 spectators at Daytona International Speedway, fans packed the stands on Sunday to watch Jimmie Johnson win his second Daytona 500 in a race marred by questions about safety and the potential for lawsuits.
The race started on schedule at 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) at the 167,000-capacity venue.
In typical fashion, several wrecks occurred at the always incident-packed Daytona 500, but none as dramatic as the one near the end of a second tier Nationwide race at the speedway on Saturday afternoon.
By Sunday morning, workers had repaired the fencing that was damaged in the pile-up, which sent debris flying into the crowd and injured spectators on the final lap of the second-tier Nationwide race.
Two spectators initially listed as critical were in stable condition on Sunday, and others were either in stable condition or had been treated and released.
Mark Martin, 54, who finished third in Sunday’s race, said: “I had a sick feeling all day, all morning, since I got up this morning, and last night, about what happened yesterday at the end of the race with the fans, which is something that we cannot have happen.”
But there was little indication of concern over safety among the fans.
“I feel safe. I think anywhere you go you run the risk of being injured but NASCAR does everything they can to protect the fans. They treat the fans like royalty here; it is amazing,” said Vinny Nigro of New York City.
Another fan, Brad Stefka from Springfield, Missouri, said he was not particularly worried but would avoid the seating closest to the track.
“Everyone who comes knows there is some element of danger,” Stefka said.
Daytona International Speedway president Joei Chitwood offered to relocate any fans in the affected area and attempt to move any fan uncomfortable over seating location.
NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, Steve O‘Donnell, said fan safety was the first priority.
“We are confident in what’s in place at today’s event. Certainly still thinking about those affected but we are confident to move forward for this race,” O‘Donnell said.
NASCAR and the speedway could face millions of dollars’ worth of claims from the injured, litigation that would likely center on the sturdiness of the safety fence that was supposed to keep fans from danger, according to several plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“Maybe the fence should have been higher; maybe there should have been more spacing between the track and spectators,” said Adam Levitt, a lawyer with Grant & Eisenhofer.
However, lawyers also said the auto-racing business would likely point to the disclaimers typically displayed on tickets, which are designed to exempt NASCAR from any potential injury liability. They expected NASCAR would argue fans knew what they were getting into when signing up for the race.
International Speedway Corporation, which owns and manages NASCAR racetracks, has rarely defended itself in public lawsuits against NASCAR fans over personal injury claims arising from accidents at its racetracks.
Recent accidents at NASCAR racetracks include last year’s lightning strike at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, which killed one fan and injured nine others, and a 2009 crash at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama when a car hit the catch fence and an 18-year-old suffered a broken jaw from a piece of car.
No lawsuit could be found in International Speedway Corporation’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that were related to either instance, nor was there record of any personal injury claim online.
NASCAR requires tracks to have $50 million in insurance to cover spectator injuries, a policy that would likely cover any lawsuits filed, according to Jeffrey Reiff, a personal injury plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Twelve spectators were taken to Halifax Health, some for heat exhaustion and dehydration, and five had been released as of Sunday, the hospital said. All of the remaining patients had stabilized, the hospital said. An additional six patients taken to a sister hospital were treated and released.
One injured spectator was being treated at Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Center in Daytona Beach, but a condition update was unavailable.
Fourteen other fans had been treated on site at the track on Saturday, Chitwood said.
Both the speedway and NASCAR have said they will closely review the incident in search of any ways they could improve safety.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said a change might be needed.
“Maybe a double fence, one behind the other with some space in between to stop something like this,” he told reporters. “But there are a lot of things and NASCAR and Indy Car racing are looking at everything they can to make it safer.”