AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- At least 33 fans were injured Saturday during a NASCAR race when a car flew into the fence at Daytona International Speedway, hurling a tire and large pieces of debris into the stands.
The accident happened on the last lap of the second-tier Nationwide Series race on the eve of Sunday's Daytona 500, which officials said would go on as scheduled.
The crash began as the field approached the checkered flag and leader Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski to preserve the win. That triggered a chain reaction, and rookie Kyle Larson hit the cars in front of him and went airborne into the fence.
The entire front end was sheared off Larson's car, and his burning engine wedged through a gaping hole in the fence. Chunks of debris from the car were thrown into the stands, including a tire that cleared the top of the fence and landed midway up the spectator section closest to the track.
The 20-year-old Larson stood in shock several yards away from his car as fans in the stands waved frantically for help. Smoke from the burning engine briefly clouded the area, and emergency vehicles descended on the scene.
Ambulance sirens could be heard wailing behind the grandstands at a time the race winner would typically be doing celebratory burnouts.
"It was freaky. When I looked to my right, the accident happened," said Rick Harpster of Orange Park, Fla., who had a bird's-eye view of the wreck. "I looked over and I saw a tire fly straight over the fence into the stands, but after that I didn't see anything else That was the worst thing I have seen, seeing that tire fly into the stands. I knew it was going to be severe."
Shannan Devine, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., was sitting about 250 feet away from where the car smashed into the fence and could see plumes of smoke directly in front of her.
"I didn't know if there was a car on top of people. I didn't know what to think. I'm an emotional person and I immediately started to cry. It was very scary. Absolutely scary. I love the speed of the sport. But it's so dangerous," said Devine who was planning to attend her second Daytona 500.
She said many fans got in the way of rescue efforts by trying to take pictures and videos, even jumping over fencing in hopes of getting closer to the scene.
Speedway President Joie Chitwood said 14 fans were treated on site, and 14 others were taken to hospitals. Chitwood didn't give any updates on their conditions. Local officials said 19 fans were taken to neighboring hospitals, including two who were in critical condition but were later upgraded to stable.
The accident happened the day before the Sprint Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl. Daytona workers could be seen repairing the large section of fence where Larson hit, as well as the wall that was damaged in the accident.
"First and foremost our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans," Chitwood said. "Following the incident we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols, and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately.
"We're in the process of repairing the facility and will be ready to go racing tomorrow."
As emergency workers tended to injured fans and ambulance sirens wailed in the background, a somber Tony Stewart skipped the traditional post-race victory celebration.
Stewart, who won for the 19th time at Daytona and seventh time in the last nine season-opening Nationwide races, was in no mood to celebrate.
"The important thing is what is going on on the frontstretch right now," said Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion. "We've always known, and since racing started, this is a dangerous sport. But it's hard. We assume that risk, but it's hard when the fans get caught up in it.
"So as much as we want to celebrate right now and as much as this is a big deal to us, I'm more worried about the drivers and the fans that are in the stands right now because that was ... I could see it all in my mirror, and it didn't look good from where I was at."
The accident spread into the upper deck and emergency crews treated fans on both levels. There were five stretchers that appeared to be carrying fans out, and a helicopter flew overhead. A forklift was used to pluck Larson's engine out of the fence.