Back to Section I: One day after disaster at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Less than 24 hours after one of the nastiest car wrecks anyone could remember, Terry Huckaby was back in Section I, Row 11, Seat 4, ready to watch 500 more miles of racing. He left Daytona International Speedway on Saturday in a panic, his brother Eddie's left leg sliced from hip to knee by a piece of steel that detached from a safety fence, catapulted at least 50 feet and carved a gash so deep the people sitting near him saw his femur.

Seat 5 was supposed to be Eddie's. He was resting at a local hospital, his leg stabilized by surgery, his pain sated by a morphine drip. He told his older brother to go to Sunday's Daytona 500, to return to the spot Terry said resembled a war zone, smoke commingled with blood, fear interlaced with carnage.

"He insisted I come," Terry said. "I was gonna go over [to the hospital] with him. But he says, 'No, no, no, no. I ain't gonna let you in. You go to the race.' "

So Terry went. His first Daytona 500 was in 1968, and the allure of the Great American Race brought him back in the years since. Wherever he would sit at Daytona, every 46 seconds – when the cars would whoosh by having completed another lap – invited terror.

It's easy to forget, because NASCAR drivers are so incredible, the weapon they drive: 3,400-pound, quarter-million-dollar, 190-mph-moving, snarling beasts with no mind, concern or care for the damage they can inflict. Each car emits a noise – bzzzzz – which, when 20 fly by in a straight line separated by inches, has the effect of a machine gun wielded by someone with an itchy trigger finger.

Daytona packs more than 100,000 fans into its grandstand along the frontstretch, tens of thousands of whom sat in seats just like Terry and Eddie Huckaby's. None, actually, was quite like Eddie's. Row 11 was packed tight, so he moved to Row 10, Seat 4. It sat empty Sunday, a deep dent left in its hard metal, a lasting reminder for Terry just how close he came to … well, he didn't want to think about that. This was the Daytona 500. This was Danica Patrick on the pole. This was Sunday, not Saturday.

"Scared?" Terry said. "Nah. This is racing."

Throughout the frontstretch, from Section I all the way to the flagstand about 200 feet away, fans spent Sunday talking about Saturday. There were empty seats. Not whole pockets but scattered seats. Maybe they were hurt. Maybe they were scared. Or maybe they just got sick or were too hungover.

Racing critics wanted to turn Saturday's wreck in the Nationwide Series – which saw Kyle Larson's car go airborne, shear in half on a safety fence that failed, launch a tire and debris into the crowd, and send 14 people to local hospitals – into an object lesson about safety and how NASCAR doesn't take nearly serious enough its responsibility to ensure it for fans. Racing enthusiasts countered that Saturday's wreck was part of the inherent danger anyone who steps into a track, be it a superspeedway like Daytona or a dirt circle in East Armpit, invites – and, in an odd way, welcomes.

Fans milled about on Daytona's infield leading up to the 500's flag drop, signing their names on the retaining wall and drinking enough to forget they left their coozy-covered PBR on the track. Eventually, they formed a line, walked up the banked track and ascended a staircase into the grandstand through the same kind of door that could have killed Eddie Huckaby and a whole lot of others.

Jerry Gilbreath, 55, was sitting a few seats down from Huckaby with his 14-year-old son, Garrett, and he wanted to explain exactly what happened. He walked up to the fence. Poles curved 22 feet high. Fifteen cables, staggered by a little more than a foot, stretched across. Chain-link fencing hatched over them. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal. It was supposed to be enough.

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Except a door – the same one that led from the infield to the stands – failed, and a panel at the bottom of the door, about 3 feet wide by 15 inches, detached, and that, Gilbreath said, "could have decapitated someone."

"It would've been a lot worse," said Steve Carlson, 62, who sat next to Eddie. "A lot of people moved. They were getting sunburned. If they were sitting there, this would've been a really, really, really bad situation."

It was bad enough. Terry ripped off his belt and tied it around Eddie's leg to stop the bleeding. Others screamed for help. And Carlson couldn't forget the tire that flew off the tether that was supposed to stop it, soared over Section I, landed in a crowd and hit a child right in the head.

On Sunday afternoon, Teri Douglas sat in Section I, Row 11, Seat 3. She is 28. Her toenails almost matched her peach shirt and pants. She is cute and energetic and the only thing that she missed about the Daytona 500 was her uncle Eddie, with whom she could throw back Miller Lite tallboys.

The race was about to start, and Terry was meeting with some cousins, updating them on Eddie, so his daughter was trying to explain what, exactly, he had seen. She was shopping during the Nationwide race, and her 5-year-old daughter, Addison, turned down a ticket from her papa because it was too hot.

"Look at this," she said, pulling out her phone, bringing up a video her father had taken in the aftermath of Saturday's crash. "It's so crazy. It was right here."

Terry would have had video of the actual wreck if his wife hadn't called immediately before the cars entered the frontstretch. Instead, he got footage of the aftermath. It was disaster porn: smoke, chaos, injuries. Teri was standing in the same spot it happened, where her uncle bled, and let out a yelp when Patrick zoomed by to start the race.

Her father arrived a few laps in with a plate of nachos and an offer for me: sit in Eddie's empty seat for the rest of the race and watch it with him. He looked good – composed, excited, excessively normal for devoting the next three-plus hours to the same spot where but for his brother's leg he might've borne the brunt of the door.

Calamity is always palpable at a NASCAR race. There is a strange dichotomy between the amazing technology of these machines and its antediluvian moments. Early in the race, a hot dog wrapper attached itself to Jeff Gordon's grill and the track announcers worried it would block air from cooling the engine, causing it to blow. Later on, Brad Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, would make a spirited run with his faulty hood held down not by some commensurate space-age technology but duct tape.

[Related video: Kasey Kahne collects Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart in wild crash]

Terry, 60, scooped nachos into his mouth with hands calloused and cracked by 34 years of running Plumbing Plus in Hendersonville, Tenn. As much as NASCAR hopes to rope in women like Teri with Patrick and its more handsome drivers, it will always be a sport sustained by Terry's demographic. NASCAR fans consider themselves a special breed, whereby one brother's injury shouldn't dare prevent another from missing the Daytona freaking 500.

Around the cars went, five laps and then 10 and then 20, Terry explaining this is the boring part and that it gets more exciting when the racers jockey and maneuver toward the finish. The crowd woke up on Turn 1 of Lap 32, well past the frontstretch, when smoke billowed and a yellow caution flag indicated the day's first wreck.

Terry turned to his daughter.

"First thing that went through my mind," he said, "is that I'm glad it's on that end."

During the caution flag, Terry snuck beneath the grandstand for a cigarette break. Across from the designated smoking area, NASCAR's merchandise engine churned. One particular memorabilia stand offered 45 different T-shirts ("additional charge for 2x, 3x, 4x"), 40 hats, headphones, checkered flags, cups, mini-cars, gloves, batteries, instant cameras, sunglasses, onesies (purple and gray, pink and blue) and Scooby-Doo wearing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirt.

It is 2013. Sports everywhere are commoditized. No one does it quite like NASCAR, though, and quite as blatantly, logos splashed across everything short of a driver's forehead, which, some marketer soon will realize, is prime space. NASCAR salesmanship, or at least the part we recognize, is hyperobvious.

The second layer – the subliminal NASCAR – is its real genius. Racing preys on the anticipation of something spectacular, on the titillating place between excitement and danger. The restrictor plates NASCAR uses at superspeedways like Daytona amount to window dressing. Kyle Larson's car still can explode into the stands even if it's not going 220 mph – and much of NASCAR's fan base sits there watching, waiting for the wreck.

Even Terry Huckaby.

"The time it'll really bother me is on the last lap," he said. That's when the wreck happened in Saturday's Nationwide Series race – on the last lap, when everybody was jockeying to cross the finish line first. "When they start dicing around on the last couple laps, that's when you've got to watch out. It's exciting. That's what makes the racing exciting. Most people come here to see a good race, but what draws the crowd is the big wrecks. You know I'm right. You have a big crash, everyone wants to see another one.

"Nobody's gonna pay $200 a seat to sit around and watch cars run in circles for four hours. Am I right? Would you? I didn't come here to watch 'em run around like that. In that case, I'll sit home and watch it on TV. I come for the racing and excitement. I don't want nobody to get hurt, by any means. It's the anticipation of a wreck. In a football game, you don't give a crap about them going 20-yard line to 20-yard line. You want the touchdowns."

Terry embodies a truth so macabre that NASCAR never can or will admit its product invites: Not only did Saturday's wreck that left his brother hospitalized not frighten him enough to prevent his return, it's the sort of thing that actually drew him back for more Sunday.

"NO STOPPING OR STANDING ALONG FENCE" read the words, painted in red every 50 feet or so on the concrete facing the grandstand. Even if there was no stopping or standing, fans walked along it throughout the race, next to the patched-up fence that still had a couple shoddy patches with obvious holes and chairs with dents, marks from lugnuts and other disfigurements after Larson's car mimicked a dirty bomb.

Matt Gutman, a reporter for ABC News, spent years in real war zones in the Middle East. He did a report next to the fence, fazed only by the mess of wind and dust that spoiled his perfect TV hair.

Security officials guarding the fence wore green vests, like crossing guards, and didn't flinch, except for one woman, who covered her ears every time the front pack zoomed by.

Couples held hands. Kids sat on dads' shoulders. People returned from concession stands ready to fill their bellies.

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They were less than 10 feet from the same kind of car that destroyed the same kind of fence, and nobody hustled by, nobody scurried through, nobody even seemed to time it to the cars running on the other side of the 2½-mile oval. It was too easy to convince yourself: Saturday's wreck was a freak accident. Cars tangle up and go flying in NASCAR races all the time. Rarely, if ever, does the detritus end up in fans' laps. Driving home from the race is far more dangerous than watching the race.

Ten rows up, Alex DiSanto, 18, pulled up his Dale Jr. T-shirt to reveal a rainbow on his left hip. One of the horizontal cables ripped off the fencing and lashed him, leaving a puffy, sand-dollar-sized bruise. He was just glad he got to keep the 18-inch-long cable.

"I'm back, in the same seat," DiSanto said. "It's the Daytona 500. I didn't want to miss this. I didn't get seriously hurt, so why not come back?"

The scene around him, after all, hadn't escaped his mind. He heard about how the tire nailed the kid, and he knew another fan ended up with a life-threatening head injury that necessitated surgery, and he saw Eddie's leg, split open and grotesque. And it's not that he shrugged those things off, or that he lacked empathy, or anything of the sort. There was a prevailing ethos in Section I that of course they had to come back Sunday, because the Eddie Huckabys out there would've wanted them to, because they needed to heal any leftover fears while Eddie started to heal his wound.

"He's going to have one hell of a NASCAR scar," Teri said. "He's going to pull up his shorts and go, 'Look, dude, my NASCAR scar.' "

By Lap 183, everyone in Section I was standing. This was the sort of racing Terry loved. Cars went three-wide into Lap 188. Keselowski dueled with Danica. Dale Jr. skulked nearby. Jimmie Johnson nosed toward the front. The biggest names, the biggest race. And the silent hope shared by all that maybe, just maybe, the spectacular lurked.

The caution flag flew soon thereafter. Terry snuck down again for a smoke. He pulled a Carlton 100 from the pack and talked about how great a race week this had been, how it would've been perfect if Eddie were there and healthy. He had texted him a picture of us earlier, holding a sign that said GET WELL SOON. He thought Eddie would like that someone was in his seat.

Earlier in the week, Terry noticed that from Section I, Row 11, Seat 4, he had a particularly keen view of the frontstretch. The cars whirled around Turn 4, and when Terry craned his neck to the left, the perspective was fascinating, enlightening, so much so that in the laps leading up to Saturday's wreck, he looked at Eddie and expressed wonderment.

"If we look that way," Terry said, "they're coming straight at us, 200 miles an hour."

He took a drag off his Carlton.

"I look around here today," he said, "and see empty seats and think, 'Are those people OK? Were they here yesterday?' "

Another smoker recognized Terry, asked if he was the guy who had been on TV, whose brother had the busted-up leg. He nodded. They chatted, Terry stubbed out his smoke and he headed back to the grandstand. Before the engines blared and the race restarted, Terry was asked for a prediction on who would take the final six laps.

"Jimmie Johnson," he said. "Lowe's Chevrolet."

Johnson broke past Keselowski on the restart. Everyone returned to their feet. When the pack tore past Section I, heads turned with it, blind to the two dozen cars that had yet to come by. There was no inhibition, just implicit trust. A guy with an iPad Mini took video. Fully aware of where I was sitting – in the seat of a man hospitalized because of these unstoppable creations – I nonetheless found myself whipping my head around, too. The instinct is powerful. The noise is magnetic. The memory is frighteningly short.

Johnson staved off a spirited run from Dale Jr. to capture his second Daytona 500, and Terry said: "What'd I tell you, man? I got a contract with Lowe's. I do their water heaters. So maybe this will increase my business." He smiled. He was rooting for Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch, but he liked Johnson well enough.

Johnson peeled into the infield for a few victory donuts, and fans stormed the fence with phones at the ready to take videos and pictures and memories. It was safe now, and they wanted to remember this Daytona 500 for their Sunday, not others' Saturday.

Terry and Teri readied to brave traffic and head to the hospital. They would visit Eddie and figure out how he was going to get home to Texas. First, though, they'd tell him about the race – about how he'd missed Danica and Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe's Chevrolet, avoider of the spectacular, champion of the 2013 Daytona 500.

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