Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Eyewitness views: Race fans Nikki Thibault and Jason Sandvil in the stands at Daytona

photo courtesy of Jason Sandvil
As Nikki Thibault and her brother, Jason Sandvil, watched the pack come thundering out of Turn 4, toward their seats near the start-finish line at Daytona International Speedway, they had no idea they were about to witness one of the most vicious crashes in recent memory.

Jason, who’s been a NASCAR fan since 2004, had an idea that there might be some trouble brewing.

“I knew there was a good chance because of how bunched up they were coming past the start finish line,” Jason explained. "As soon as I saw Denny turn around, I knew it was going to get bad.”

A fan for the past 20 years, Nikki didn’t think that it would happen right in front of them.

“Even though history suggested that there would be a last-minute crash, I honestly didn't believe that there would be one right in front of me. As the cars came around Turn 4, it was very clear to me that no one could catch Dale Jr., so I truly wasn't expecting it at all,” said Nikki.

They’d spent the day tailgating at Lot 7 from about 8:30 a.m. until they went over to the track at about 10:00 p.m. According to Jason, they met a guy from another state, made a new friend and hung out with him. Nikki said they were checking the weather radar and Twitter, waiting for the rain to pass and racing to begin.
Nikki Thibault and Jason Sandvil having fun in 2014

It was a long day, to say the least.

The last lap finally came. Harvick bumped Nikki’s favorite driver, Denny Hamlin. The 11 car turned, hitting Austin Dillon, and chaos ensued.

“All I could hear was the bending of the fence. But there was pure shock at that point and seemed to happen in slow motion,” Jason described.

“Everything happened so fast there was only time to react on instinct,” said Nikki. “I just remember that after I heard the car crash into the fence I ducked, afraid of getting hit with debris and protecting myself in case any large pieces of Austin's car ended up in the stands.”

“I thought Austin's car was coming through the fence," said Jason. “ I didn't see any way I was not going to get hit by something. Didn't really have time to be afraid, it happened so fast. When his car hit the fence, natural instinct took over and I just ducked so not to get hit in face with anything. It was more shock than anything.”

It was really weird, I didn't feel any debris at all, it seemed most of it stayed on the track. I know some did come up because I guess some people got mildly hurt.”

Nikki did see debris.

“As everything was happening I saw dirt and small pieces of debris flying at us, but thankfully
nothing too large. I didn't see anyone being treated, but I did see track workers walking around and seeing if anyone needed to be treated for injuries and even saw them escort a couple people to get medical attention.”
photo courtesy of Jason Sandvil 
  Their major concern, though, was Austin Dillon.

“Watching Austin's car crash dead on into the fence, roll upside down on the track, and then get hit again by Brad Keselowski, I honestly thought he was dead. His car looked so mangled that I couldn't fathom how he was going to get out alive," Nikki said.

"My heart literally stopped and my entire body was shaking during the minute that Dillon was still in that car until he got out and miraculously walked away from the wreck.”

Both Nikki and Jason were at the 2013 DriveforCOPD Nationwide race when Kyle Larson’s car careened into the catch fence, raining debris on the stands. Jason said he and his sister felt the debris from that crash, they were so close. But both agreed this incident was worse.

“I have to say that this wreck was definitely the worse that I have ever witnessed live,” said Nikki.

Yet the siblings echoed each others’ sentiments in hoping that whatever comes out of the investigation, that NASCAR doesn’t go too far with any changes they might implement as a result.

“That type of racing is what we all like seeing, and this is the stuff that happens. The fence did what it needed to keep us fans safe, and the car obviously did its job to keep Austin safe,” Jason said.

“I think more work could be done to keep the cars on the ground, but they don't need to be over-reacting and make a bunch of changes. They took that data [from Larson’s crash] and made the fences a lot safer. So NASCAR has made great strides to make everything safe. It's a dangerous sport; that's all there is to it.”

Nikki agreed.

“This is a true testament though to how much NASCAR has stepped up when it comes to safety. The catch fence did its job by not allowing the car to get into the stands, and Austin walked away from his completely totaled car without a problem," she said.

“I know that in the days and weeks to come the discussion is going to center around how to not have these wrecks happen anymore, but I'm hoping that if something gets done that NASCAR doesn't overreach because up until the end that was one of the best races at Daytona that I've seen in years.”

Thanks to Nikki and Jason, friends of Skirts and Scuffs team member Kelly Strusky, for graciously agreeing to share this experience with our readers.

LJ Cloud, aka Lisa or Janine, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track. A fifth-generation Texan, she began watching NASCAR in 1997, followed by almost every other form of motorsports from F1 to lawnmower racing.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history, and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical research.


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