I Witnessed the Daytona Beach Car-Crash Apocalypse

At the Daytona 500 last weekend, a car lost traction and started to drift across as if the track were made of ice. Then the car became airborne. It somersaulted through the air, and its engine and a tire flew off. Finally, the car catapulted through...

Devin Jacoviello

Last Saturday, my buddy T. J. asked me to come along with him to help shoot a documentary on the people who travel from all over the country to go to the Daytona car races.

After some convincing, I ended up giving in, and he picked me up at my house in Orlando. It’s only an hour's drive to Daytona Beach, so I figured, What the hell, why not?

When we got there we decided that the best course of action would be to act like we were part of the official media and walk in with our cameras. The ticket taker stopped a group of people in bathing suits but let us in without question. Tickets ranged from $60 to $200, so we totally lucked out. As we went through the gates, I thought, Suckers!

Shortly after our first interview with some hillbilly who was really into race cars (go figure), we walked up to the fence by the main entrance to get a flyby of the cars. About 20 of them roared past going about 180 mph. They were multicolored blurs. I took photos.

But suddenly, my camera started getting an "error 30" message from the shutter, which is not normal. So, pro photographer that I am, I went and sat down on the bleachers and searched Google for the meaning of the error code.

A few minutes later, after T. J. and I admitted to ourselves that my camera was totally fucked, we decided I should shoot with his backup video camera.  Since the focal length was different, we decided it would look better from up higher in the bleachers.

Then, less than ten minutes after we walked away from the fence and set up in the bleachers, a car—driven by a guy named Kyle Larson—started to lose control. I watched as it lost traction and started to drift across the track, as if the track were ice. Suddenly, the car became airborne. It somersaulted through the air. Then its engine and a tire flew off. Larson’s car catapulted into the fence… right where we had been standing. I didn’t get a photo of this, because my fucking camera had stopped working and we were sitting in the bleachers; but maybe that malfunction had saved my life.

Thirty-two bystanders were injured in the wreck. In total, a dozen cars were smashed and their drivers banged up. At NASCAR, race cars average about 190 mph and crashes are common—including fatal ones, like the Daytona 500 wreck in 2001 that killed Dale Earnhardt. But spectator injuries are rare. Two of the 32 people injured at the race I attended landed in the critical care ward of the hospital (one of them was a little kid). A few people were also left completely covered in ethanol, which is disturbring.

The beer-gutted rednecks at Daytona Beach were pissed. Immediately after the crash, we started interviewing people. There was another Daytona 500 race scheduled the next day, and some people rushed to the ticket counters to request seat changes so they would be farther away from the action. "I've seen a lot of crashes, but nothing like this,” said Steven, who had driven here from Vermont for the race. “People aren't going to feel very good about bringing their little kids here tomorrow if a tire is going to come and take out their toddler, ya know what I'm sayin', bro?"

Other people were pissed that, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, the local media seemed to be downplaying the damage. One man I spoke to speculated that they were trying not to damage sales for the next day’s race. Daytona News 6 reported that there were just a few spectator injuries. ESPN SportsCenter was reporting that there were just eight or ten. The news stations showed video of the car’s initial skid and some smoke, but didn’t include footage of the destroyed fence or the victims. Anyone with eyes could see that at least 25 stretchers had been carried out to ambulances.

Miraculously, as I was interviewing fans, my shutter problem resolved itself. I was lucky then to be able to shoot the havoc that followed the crash. My camera even worked later that night when we went to talk to people at the local campgrounds where we stayed, alongside hundreds of booze-chugging NASCAR maniacs. Despite the earlier incident, they seemed in fine spirits. Bill and his brother (who was too drunk to tell me his name), for instance, answered me thusly when I asked who their favorite driver was: "It depends if they’re naked or not, because if they are, I'm gonna have to go with Danica Patrick,” he said, referring to the race’s only female contestant. “If not, I'm going with Earnhardt since I was there the day his daddy died."

Devin Jacoviello is a photographer living in Florida. www.fishgoestocamp.com