By Lewis Franck
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Spectator safety measures were put to the test at Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday when a seven-car accident ended opening Sprint Cup Series practice for the day ahead of Sunday's Daytona 500 race.
A car driven by rookie Parker Kligerman was sent into the catch fence, near the area of a multi-car accident last year in which more than 30 fans were injured, but thankfully this time the spectator area was not breached.
Wednesday's accident, in which no one was injured, was apparently caused when Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth made contact in tight drafting practice, resulting in several vehicles being diverted sideways.
Kligerman bore the brunt of it as his vehicle rode up and over the car of Paul Menard before getting pushed from behind by Ryan Truex's vehicle, then slid along the top of the outside wall and into the catch fence.
"Turns out Joey was bump drafting the 20 (car of Kenseth) in the middle of the pack when we were trying to get up to speed," Menard, who was among the fastest in qualifying practice, told reporters. "I guess that's the end result."
Track president Joie Chitwood III told Reuters that the gate in the area of the accident had not been restored because there were an additional nine crossover gates at the venue.
"We did not put back in the one we lost after the accidents," Chitwood said. "For us, we're always going to look to be better.
"It's no different when we put in the SAFER barriers (fences designed to dissipate race car inertia). Five years ago, we replaced all the fencing."
Twelve months ago, the undercarriage of Kyle Larson's race car flew through the fence and into the grandstands at the Daytona International Speedway during the Nationwide Series race, leaving more than 30 fans injured.
Crews worked through the night to repair the catch fence so the Daytona 500 race could go ahead as planned the following day, and officials have since implemented additional spectator safety measures.
The 55-year old facility, which is owned by International Speedway Corporation, has undergone many levels of safety upgrades but racetrack safety has typically struggled to keep up with advances in racecar technology.
The crossover gate is simply a hole in the fence with a mesh wire door to allow spectators and officials to move back and forth from the grandstand into the infield. Before the race starts, the gate is closed and locked.
Although high-speed crashes are inevitable on the high banks of the 2.5 mile superspeedway, the catch fence usually works and contains the highly modified stock car-looking racers which exceed speeds of 190mph on the track.
Last year's Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway was the exception.
"We made it a contiguous fence from post to post, we repaired the fence and worked till 2 a.m. that morning to get ready for the 500," Chitwood told Reuters about the repair measures hastily implemented after last year's crash.
The International Speedway Corporation later hired an engineering firm to suggest improvements to the mesh fence and cabling for the circuit to be ready for its second big event in July.
"In fact we brought in a second engineering firm to do peer analysis to make sure so we actually brought in two firms to double-check and we did (implemented) it in a couple of events," Chitwood said.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)