We’ve come a long, long way in NASCAR in terms of safety. But on the last lap of the Daytona 500 (and those words already have a loaded meaning, don’t they?) on Monday night (Feb. 17), the racing world witnessed a horrific reminder of both how far we’ve come and how not a day can go by without working to make the sport even safer than it was the day before as Ryan Newman was tagged by Ryan Blaney and careened into the outside wall.
What followed looked like a scene from a bad movie: Newman’s No. 6 impacted the wall, and it got airborne, turning over in the air until Corey LaJoie’s car slammed into the worst possible place on a modern NASCAR Cup Series car: the driver’s side roof. The car spun to a stop, still on its roof, with fuel pouring out of the fuel cell.
Much of what unfolded is a testament to NASCAR’s work on making the sport safer. The SAFER barrier took the worst of Newman’s impact with the wall, absorbing a lot of the hit. The roll cage did its job — the roof caved in around it, but the main roll bars appeared to remain intact. Safety crews extricated Newman as fast as possible and got him on his way to the local hospital. And by the grace of some higher power, the fuel didn’t ignite.
Because of that, Newman, though injured, is expected to survive. Before NASCAR’s safety overhaul following Dale Earnhardt’s death in the same race in 2001, the narrative could be very different today. But a family still has a father and a son today. NASCAR should be applauded for that.
But the accident was also a reminder that there is more to do. The closing rate on superspeedways is too fast, and the cars don’t have enough throttle response for drivers to avoid contact. The fuel cell, itself a massive safety feature, was compromised. The driver’s side, particularly above the door section of roll cage, is still vulnerable; the B-pillar was all but destroyed — it was that close. The driver didn’t walk away. Roush Fenway Racing has to formulate an 11th-hour Plan B for the immediate future.
As I write this, it is 19 years to the day that NASCAR changed forever. Its biggest star was lost on that final lap. Earnhardt’s legacy goes beyond his prowess on the track — he’s part of everything NASCAR has done, from SAFER barriers and head and neck restraints, to the improved roll cages and padding. The fifth- and sixth-generation cars are a lot of things, but they are most certainly safer than their predecessors. As NASCAR worked to find a way to lessen the impact of crashes, Ricky Craven wondered if one day drivers would look back and only remember when they hit concrete walls. In 2020, that’s reality.
It’s fair, perhaps, though no less painful, to say that in a sense, Dale Earnhardt’s death saved Ryan Newman’s life on Monday.
So where do we go from here? Complacency is not an option. The cars are far safer than two decades ago. That doesn’t mean they can’t be made safer still. NASCAR can continue to move forward with keeping drivers out of harm’s way. Newman, and every other driver that straps into a racecar, deserves nothing less.
While complacency has no place when it comes to safety, Monday’s accident is also a reminder that every person with a connection to the sport should take a moment to thank their lucky stars for the improvements that have been made.
There are many fans who don’t remember the cold dread that every single person in the NASCAR world felt on February 18, 2001, the wait stretching into hours, conflicting reports, the broadcast leaving the air and leaving anyone watching at home to only speculate about what was happening … and then the words we never thought we’d hear. Other than the final outcome, they know now. Hopefully, it will be another generation or more before they feel it again. A lot of drivers have walked away from crashes that at some earlier time in the sport’s history, they would not have.
That’s a testament to NASCAR for realizing change was needed instead of sweeping a rash of deaths in 2000 and 2001 under the rug as racing incidents or mechanical failure. They were those things, but somebody said “no more,” and the sport underwent some major changes in the name of safety. It’s also a testament to the people who worked and continue to work tirelessly in pursuit of safer tracks, safer cars and safer driver equipment.
Racing is a sport with a high cost sometimes. Drivers know that, but they strap in anyway, every week. It’s not that they’re foolhardy or that they don’t care about their families as some outside the sport may claim. It’s that racing is who they are. They strapped in a week after Earnhardt’s death because that’s what racers do. It’s not disrespect to a departed driver or crewman; it’s fully the opposite.
Roush Fenway Racing has not announced whether the No. 6 team will compete this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but it’s likely they will. Newman’s name will remain over the door of a substitute driver, but the team will probably race. It’s not callous nor is it without heavy hearts. It’s just what racers do.
Newman’s accident is not a reason to place blame. Blaney didn’t get into Newman to wreck him; he got into him because the closing rate of the cars is too fast and he had to make the run or get run over from behind. LaJoie didn’t hit Newman in the roof because he was racing too hard; he hit him because he had nowhere to go and his vision was obscured by smoke. The racing community needs to rally around these two drivers along with Newman. Nobody did anything wrong, but the superspeedways don’t race like they used to. A cloak of danger hangs over Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway always these days. Fans love when drivers flirt with it. But sometimes the danger turns on us all, snarling and gnashing, and nobody loves that.
It’s in those times of tragedy that the racing community is at its best: supportive, kind, united. Not one driver or crewman, not one real fan wants to see any person injured racing. Rivalries dissipate when it does happen, they seem petty and small. They might pick up later where they left off, but they’re shoved aside in the moment.
On social media Monday night, a photo of Newman circulated with the caption, “Today, we are all Ryan Newman fans.” That’s the sentiment of real racers and real fans. It’s the sentiment of family.
There are still many questions to be answered, but when the agonizing wait on Monday ended with the news that Newman’s injuries were not expected to be life threatening and followed on Tuesday with a statement that Newman is conscious and speaking with his family and doctors, the relief rushed through the racing world like raging water.
So what’s next? We hope and pray that Newman will make a swift recovery so that he can enjoy life with his family. Hopefully, there will be changes down the line to help prevent the crashes and the terrible fear that surrounds them.
In the meantime, we thank our lucky stars that safety has come so far that Newman’s life was spared. Because there was a time when it might not have been, and many remember that all too well. In the meantime, we race, because that’s what we know to do.
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