This may come as a shock to some, although not as much after Monday night, but racing is dangerous.
Strapping into a conglomeration of metal and moving parts that hurtles down the track at speeds around 200 mph can sometimes lead to catastrophic failures.
When those failures happen, the potential for injury is quite significant. Amazingly, after being basically hit in the face with a stock car traveling 195-plus mph at the end of the Daytona 500, Ryan Newman walked out of the hospital without so much as a visible bruise on Wednesday.
The modern safety advances in racing make it possible for such miracles to happen. It wasn’t always that way.
Prior to Dale Earnhardt’s death, safety was a topic of discussion in stock car and racing circles, but it wasn’t a priority. In Formula 1, even with the passing of Ayrton Senna and the items that were being tested in the late ‘90s, the flirtation with death was part of the allure of the sport.
The loss of the icon of NASCAR forced the hand of everyone involved. Head and neck restraints, SAFER barriers, foot boxes, bigger greenhouses, wind screen and halos have all come in recent years thanks to that tragic day in 2001 and the losses in IndyCar of Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson.
It would seem like keeping drivers alive would have always been a priority for sanctioning bodies, but in the early years of racing, the romance of the cheating of death is what brought drivers to the sport and fans to the stands. The great announcer Ken Squier coined the phrase, “Common men doing uncommon things”. In the early days of open wheel, with the drivers truly exposed to the world, it was incredibly dangerous to race. Not only was an accident a true spin of the roulette wheel as to whether you’d live or die, but debris from other vehicles could also easily contact a driver and cause serious, if not fatal, injuries.
The beauty of that racing was that the fans could see the driver and watch their arms as they muscled their beast around the racetrack. Fans felt a greater connection to the drivers.
When the stock car days began, the racers truly used stock cars. They were sitting on a bench seat, some without lap belts, racing their cars around the local bullrings for a minimal check. The excitement was that they were driving the exact same vehicle that you could buy off of the showroom floor.
Sadly, that lack of safety equipment led to some serious injuries and deaths. Slowly the sport began to add roll cages, seat belts, safety harnesses, window nets, purpose-built race seats, gloves, shoes, fire-retardent clothing and more. It was a slow crawl in the early days, but eventually people realized death didn’t have to be a price of exciting racing.
While the competitors were being kept safer and safer, the people keeping them safe worked on being better. Indianapolis Motor Speedway had ambulances in the infield for the very first Indianapolis 500. It was the first to install warning lights around the track in 1935 and began using helicopters for serious injuries in 1970. Every track has an infield care center to give immediate response to a driver and they also have response vehicles around the track to bring immediate aid if needed.
Indianapolis was long the standard for response time to incidents, sometimes having the safety vehicle arrive before a crashed vehicle had come to a complete stop. While that is a ridiculous standard, the rapid response of safety vehicles can be the difference of life and death. Monday, while it seemed like a long time, the safety truck arrived at Newman’s car 20 seconds after it stopped sliding. Personnel have to wait until race vehicles are past before rolling for their own safety, so that was a very quick response time.
While it wasn’t always the case, all national touring series now have medical teams who travel with them on their circuit so that the safety personnel are familiar with the drivers and their personal needs. That might not make a big difference in care, but it is a huge comfort to the racers involved in the sport.
Racing has advanced a long way from its formative years to the boom years of the ‘90s and now the super safe years of the 2010s. We can have a tendency to become a little complacent when we go so long, almost 20 years, without a fatality in the national touring levels of NASCAR. Fortunately, or unfortunately, every once in a while a reminder jumps up and slaps us in the face, reminding us of the true danger of the sport. Open wheel racing is inherently more dangerous, but it is working diligently as well to make its racing as safe as it possibly can.
As NASCAR heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week, we all get to share a healthy exhale as Newman is out of the hospital and seemingly none the worse for wear. We survived another scare and have a healthy appreciation, once again, for the dangers of the sport and the men and women who risk life and limb to bring it to us. We hopefully also have a great gratitude for the safety personnel, both in the trucks and in the care centers, who look after the drivers whenever something goes wrong. They are truly unsung heroes in our sport.
The bottom line, amen that Ryan Newman is alive and well, and thank you to the men and women who got him out of that mangled wreckage, transported him to the hospital and nursed him back to such a quick recovery. They are all truly common men doing uncommon things.