When the green flag drops at the Coke Zero 400 today at Daytona International Speedway, Whitney Turner will be fighting her own emotions as fans take their seats in the grandstands and the NASCAR race starts.
She will relive how she had been a happy fan, attending her first race at Daytona in February, when a race car crashed and sent debris through a protective fence, shattering her right leg.
And she will hope that the fans will be protected from the hell she’s endured.
“I hope the fence holds up. I pray for the fans sitting there,” the 33-year-old Tell City, Ind., woman said. “I hope they move up a couple of rows. I hope it’ll be OK.”
Turner is one of more than 30 people injured when Kyle Larson’s car wrecked during the last lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Drive4COPD 300 on Feb. 23 — the eve of the Daytona 500. The car shattered and its pieces flew through the fence into the grandstands.
Two engineering firms investigated what went wrong at the fence and specifically studied where the crash happened — at one of the eight crossover gates that can be opened before and after a race, allowing fans access to the track’s infield.
With the engineers’ recommendations, track officials reinforced those gates with additional cables to strengthen them when they’re closed. Officials also installed more tethering between the gate frame and posts.
Daytona speedway president Joie Chitwood said the engineers thought the rest of the chain link fence that surrounds the 2.5-mile track and its posts, cables and other reinforcements were doing “an adequate job.”
The engineering firms decided that the crossover gates can be maintained with additional reinforcements and redundancy in the cables, Chitwood said.
But that doesn’t reassure Turner, a lifelong NASCAR fan who still faces surgery this summer to reconstruct her shattered knee.
The single mom of a 5-year-old had made the trip to Daytona in February as part of a birthday gift from her father. She traveled with him and another friend, and though they had infield passes, Turner wanted to watch the Feb. 23 race from the grandstands.
She sat in the front row not far from the start-finish line. It had been a dream come true for her, until the last lap of the race.
“There was the checkered flag. Everybody is standing up. It’s exciting. The cars come around and then it was like a horror movie,” she said. “Kyle Larson’s car (went) belly up at all of us in the grandstand.
“It was awful. I didn’t know I was going to live,” she said.
The debris struck her right leg, shattered her knee cap, breaking both of her major leg bones and tearing her Achilles’ tendon. She has undergone several surgeries and struggled with a persistent infection in her leg muscles. Unable to work, she has lost her marketing job.
Turner is one of nine injured people who have retained an attorney, Matt Morgan of the Morgan and Morgan law firm in Orlando, in potential legal claims against the Speedway.
The Coke Zero 400 has weighed heavily on her mind for the past week. She remains a loyal fan and watches every NASCAR race on TV each weekend.
She’s not sure how she’ll handle watching tonight’s race.
“This is the first weekend I will see Daytona on TV,” she said. “It’s really scary.
“I really love NASCAR, but I’m scared to watch the race.”