Local man was in heart of Daytona crash

The 43-car NASCAR Nationwide Series field passed through the Daytona International Speedway frontstretch 119 times without a major crash in Saturday’s Drive4COPD 300.

The 120th and final trip, however, will be one few will forget.

In the midst of the major crash infamously known as the “Big One” due to the amount of cars usually involved in said wreck, Kyle Larson’s No. 32 Chevrolet made contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 and went sliding up the track. Larson’s car then made contact with Brad Keselowski’s No. 22 Ford and flew into the catchfence, the front end disintegrating on impact.

Larson walked away unscathed, to his own amazement. Thirty-three fans weren’t so lucky, transported via ambulance to the infield care center and area hospitals.

One fan who was in the middle of it all and was fortunate enough to walk away with no injuries was Fredonia resident Mike Vinciguerra.

“It happened so fast I didn’t have time to comprehend it,” he said. “I looked and there was no place to move. Some pieces (of the car) went over my head. We were standing at the time, watching it all. You didn’t have time to be scared. It was just instantaneous.”

When there was time to comprehend it, the carnage was staggering. Larson’s engine went through the catchfence and a wheel went into the crowd – right above Vinciguerra and his fellow fans. Debris was scattered in the stands.

“I was 15 feet from where the wheel fell,” Vinciguerra said. “I saw it come right through the fence. When it came through it was like an explosion. A young girl was hit with debris. There were two sisters. The one girl that got hurt, she was trembling so hard I thought she would have a real issue. Of course, the father was upset, too.”

One of Vinciguerra’s friends, Don Fiore, went down to help those injured before track security and local police prevented fans from visiting the scene of the accident.

“He moved real quick,” Vinciguerra said. “He helped with some of the people who got hurt.”

Following common procedure when injuries or fatalities might occur during a race, television cameras didn’t provide ample close-ups of an impressive rescue effort.

“(The authorities) started moving people out of the stands and out under the deck, too,” Vinciguerra said. “They reacted very well down there. All of the police and the responders acted pretty darn fast. I saw one man lying face down, holding his back. They got the ambulances down there very quick, as fast as you could go.”

Two fans who were rushed to the hospital in critical condition later stabilized and no crash-related fatalities occurred. In fact, some of the injured and treated fans came back the next afternoon to enjoy the Daytona 500 – including the girl who had been hurt in Vinciguerra’s section – in the same seats they sat in when disaster struck.

“Everybody in that area was asking her how she was doing and everything else,” Vinciguerra said. “All the people in that corner (where Larson crashed) were back the next day. They kind of joked about it, having a tire to take home and all. I think everyone felt pretty secure.

“Lightning doesn’t strike twice, at least they were hoping.”

The last major U.S. auto racing crash to kill spectators occurred when three fans were killed and eight others injured in a May 1999 IndyCar crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The worst accident in motorsports history occurred during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I remember pictures, when I was a kid, from Le Mans where a Mercedes crashed and killed (77) people,” Vinciguerra said. “Things like that happen.”

As for Daytona, Vinciguerra plans on attending next February’s race weekend. This was the first time he’s been able to see the entire Daytona 500 in his fourth consecutive year of making the trek south.

“I’ve been going every year for the past four years,” Vinciguerra said. “I think this is the first time I’ve sat in the stands and watched one the whole time. Everyone there is very, very friendly.”