Did You Notice? … It’s been 19 years since we lost Dale Earnhardt Sr. on February 18, 2001? Ryan Newman’s wreck in the 2020 Daytona 500 brought back the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) of that nightmare across America.
It’s easy to forget an entire generation of race fans never experienced Earnhardt’s death. But for those who did… you never forget. I was a sophomore in college, just a race fan when that No. 3 car slammed into the wall in turn 3. I remember turning pale when Ken Schrader came on FOX and said, “I’m not a doctor. I got the heck out of the way as soon as I got there.” I’ll never forget the hours after that, the feeling in my heart he was dead while just waiting for the actual words that confirmed it.
That’s what makes Newman’s story such a happy ending. For hours, everyone who watched his flip was left in the same state of shock, a combination of numbness and horror at witnessing a potential death. NASCAR’s actions, from the black screen around the No. 6 car to the long wait time before releasing his condition, fed into the fear bad news was imminent. A direct impact on the driver’s door, upside down at over 180 mph, is the type of hit that turns tragic.
But Newman survived. And on Wednesday (Feb. 19) came the best news of all… his release from Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach, FL, walking out with his two daughters in tow in a photo that brought the racing world to tears. Instead of planning a funeral this week, NASCAR nation is busy memorializing a miracle.
Ryan Newman has been treated and released from Halifax Medical Center pic.twitter.com/J0twhGgQm7
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) February 19, 2020
Collectively, NASCAR nation now breathes a sigh of relief… and starts debating a simple question.
Should the racing at Daytona International Speedway be tweaked? How can we stop these cars from flipping over? What can we do to ensure this incident, these feelings, this horror never happens again?
When I was younger, I used to fight harder for answers to these questions. It’s true a higher frequency of frightening moments happen with the type of pack racing Daytona provides. Earnhardt’s death occurred here, this form of racing forever connected to maximum danger. Since then, we’ve seen flips tear down the catchfence (Carl Edwards at Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, Austin Dillon at Daytona in 2015). We’ve seen a record 30 cars get involved in a wreck (Talladega, NASCAR Xfinity Series, 2002). There’s even been a massive fire from Juan Pablo Montoya hitting a jet dryer (Daytona, 2012). In all cases, everyone walked away but there’s clearly the most safety work to be done at these tracks.
We can probably do better at figuring out why so many cars are flipping over. In virtually every Daytona and Talladega race I can think of the past few years, there’s been some sort of incident where someone goes upside down. NASCAR R&D has taken Newman’s car back, along with that of Corey LaJoie’s, who hit the No. 6 head on. Debate will rage on about whether to keep racing at those two tracks altogether.
First restrictor plates – now tapered spacers – make it impossible to break away from the pack. Closing rates in the draft make blocking a must to win: if the guy behind you misjudges his move, or even a hit to your bumper, calamity ensues. Just ask Ryan Blaney, who’s spent the past few days off social media after his No. 12 car started the mess that turned Newman sideways.
Here’s a spoiler, though, it’s not Blaney’s fault. And if you kill racing at Daytona and Talladega? Drivers will still be putting their lives on the line. Indeed, race fans and drivers alike relearned a hard lesson that’s been pushed out of plain view in NASCAR for almost two decades: racing is inherently dangerous. In no other sport do we have such fear an athlete could die through the simple act of competing.
The past 19 years have seen serious wrecks occur at places with half the speed of Daytona and Talladega. Jerry Nadeau’s NASCAR career ended with a hard crash at a short track in Richmond (2003). Mike Harmon had arguably the scariest wreck of anyone, his car torn to shreds at half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway in 2002. Mark Martin almost got impaled on pit road at Michigan International Speedway (2012), his car in a slow, lazy spin before hitting concrete.
So it doesn’t matter the racetrack, the speeds or the handling package. If you’re driving a stock car… you’re putting your life on the line. It’s a reality no one wants to think about as NASCAR’s safety advancements made it seem like that’s no longer happening. But race cars will always have a habit of finding new walls to hit and new ways to wreck. The second you feel like you have a problem fixed… a new risk reveals itself in a shower of sparks. Only Lady Luck sometimes stands in the way of life or death.
Other racing series still know what happens when she turns away. The IndyCar Series has lost four drivers since Earnhardt’s death: Tony Renna, Paul Dana, Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson. Several others, like Robert Wickens, have suffered through serious injuries changing their racing lives forever.
Formula One? They lost Jules Bianchi in 2014 and a number of drivers in lesser series. Sprint cars caused the death of Jason Leffler; Bryan Clauson died in a midget car. NHRA? Scott Kalitta (2008) was one of nearly a half-dozen since Earnhardt’s 2001 tragedy. Sports cars, rally cars, touring cars… they all have their own recent horror stories.
NASCAR’s 0-for-19 year track record stands strong by comparison. It’s the best accomplishment they can hang their hat on this century: HANS devices, SAFER Barriers and a long line of cockpit improvements leading the way in racing innovation. Now’s the moment to stand up and applaud all they’ve done: this moment is the latest in a long line of near misses.
The hope is over time, fans, drivers and the stock car racing community will normalize after what we witnessed Monday night. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, 38 NASCAR Cup Series drivers will strap in and do it again like nothing happened to Newman. Fans need to feel entertained, not concerned during a race, and a few photo finishes without flipping over will provide some sort of healing.
But it’ll take time to fully forget again the nightmare that could happen every time the green flag drops. Anyone who lived through Earnhardt’s death knew it all too well: at least this time, there’s a new belief it doesn’t have to mean “the end.”
Pray for them, for Newman, for everyone NASCAR plays the odds – and wins – for years to come.