DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a joyless, near silent victory lane, Tony Stewart went through NASCAR's corporate "hat dance" – posing in front of a trophy for pictures with various sponsors that make this expensive sport operate.
After nearly each forced smile wearing a another logo'd hat next to another senior vice president of marketing something, Stewart kept snapping his head back up and to the right, craning his neck and staring off into the grandstands across from him.
He did it time and time again, with almost every momentary break as he was handed another hat and someone else climbed into place, he looked up, hoping for an angle on what was happening, hoping for hope.
It was clear there was carnage across the way. Just before the finish line of the Nationwide race Stewart just won, there was a destroyed safety fence, a casualty of a violent, multi-vehicle, high-speed wreck that sent parts of Kyle Larson's car scattering into the mostly filled grandstands.
Now those rows of black and white seats at this iconic speedway looked like a battlefield, packs of rescue workers frantically working on multiple fans hit by the debris from the crash.
Stewart couldn't know at that moment that at least 28 fans were injured, including two critically, one of them a child. He clearly suspected the worst, though.
These were the first moments of a sport coming to grips with its worst fears.
"It was like a war zone there," said fan Terry Huckaby, whose brother Eddie, 53, was hit in the leg by a three-foot piece of metal. Terry used his belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. "When the car hit, debris went everywhere. Tires flying over our head.
"When I said war zone, there was smoke from the motor," continued Terry Huckaby, 60. "You've got to realize, a motor was sitting in the stands. And a wheel. I don't mean a tire. A wheel with a brake-drum on it and everything flying over your head and debris everywhere and smoke and people crying."
A tire wound up nine rows deep in the lower section. There were stretchers everywhere, cops waving their arms, white bandages visibly being unrolled with purpose. Helicopters hovered above. The scene even went into the upper deck of the massive grandstand, one fan being treated almost impossibly far from the track.
[Related: 28 fans injured at Daytona]
Stewart could only see the activity, the red suits of the emergency workers scrambling. It looked bad. He kept asking people for more details. Did they hear anything? Did they know anything? Everyone kept shaking his or her heads.
"I'm more worried about them," Stewart said, motioning his hand toward the stands.
Everywhere there were clenched faces and long stares. Back on pit road, crewmembers quickly pulled down their boxes, mumbling quietly to each other, glancing up at the other side of the track with clear concern.
Everyone looked like they feared the worst. Just then a wrecker puttered by with the smoking remains of unidentifiable rubble that was once part of a race car lying on the flat bed.
Back in victory lane, the hat dance routine went on. Yet there were none of the usual shouts of joy. There were just a few smiles and some pats on the back, but in what is usually a jubilant place, there was a surreal near silence. Why they even bothered is anyone's guess.
In the end this is business, great expense, great excitement. It costs a lot of money to run and there is forever a balancing act to make it a spectator sport. This isn't the first time fans have been injured or even killed. The Daytona International Speedway fences were believed to be state of the art. No one wants this. No one takes this lightly, but in the end little can withstand a ton and a half of metal flying through the air at nearly 200 m.p.h.
"We know a lot," NASCAR president Mike Helton said of track safety. "We know what we know. But the biggest thing we know is we don't know everything we need to know because there are moments that occur that we've just never seen before and can't really plan for."
People are injured in racing. People die in racing. It's tragic and terrible. Yet it's an entire other deal when it's the fans – innocent, out for a thrill, the ones who make the business work.
"We've always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport," Stewart said. "But it's hard. We assume that risk. It's hard when the fans get caught up in it."
Stewart soon spoke about the "havoc behind us" as he avoided an initial crash to take the checkered flag. He saw cars slamming into each, saw Larson get airborne and slam the fence, debris flying everywhere with no safe place to land.
"I looked in the mirror and that's the worst image I've ever seen in a race in my life," he said. "I don't want to celebrate until we hear from everybody and the track officials [say] that everybody is all right."
He had to know that was just wishful thinking.
Stewart has always been an open book. Angry, happy, intense, it doesn't matter. You know what you're getting.
This, here in victory lane, was a look of concern, the emotion of being helpless, the gut-churning feeling of knowing that this grand experiment of auto racing, which Stewart has devoted his life to in all forms as a driver, team owner and even track owner, is capable of such horror.
How could something he loves so much break so bad?
"It's like, you want to put on good races, but not at the risk of drivers and the fans like this," Stewart said. "It's a hard thing for NASCAR. There's no easy solution, never has been. NASCAR is an extremely smart group. They're doing everything they can to keep this from happening."
Yet maybe it can't be stopped from happening. At some point the walls become too big, the fans pushed back too far, the thrill of feeling the power of these huge machines is lost. Then why do you come?
For racing fans, the adrenaline rush has remained impossible to resist. Yet will they keep coming with scenes like this? How many will stay home from Sunday's Daytona 500.
It's the impossible juxtaposition that later, at a brief press conference, led Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood to say this:
"First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans."
And then in the next breath stated:
"We're in the process of repairing this facility and will be ready to go racing tomorrow."
For Stewart earlier, the hat dance finally began to wind down. The line of well wishers was mostly gone. There were just a few cameramen left to snap photos. Stewart stepped down from the stage to give some comments.
He looked back up into the distance, where the emergency folks were almost done, and shook his head.
Here in victory lane of NASCAR's most famous track, neither Tony Stewart nor anyone else looked eager to celebrate a thing.
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