I’d never felt the palpable energy on Sunday afternoon leading up to the Daytona 500.
I’d also never felt the gut punch and fright I felt Monday after the checkered flag flew.
The 36 hours from when the 500 began to when it ended, including the events that preceded and followed, had some of the craziest emotion swings a race fan can experience. And that’s what I am at the end of the day: a race fan.
To use the cliché “regardless of your political views” placeholder, having a sitting President of the United States attend a race, moreover the biggest one, is pretty freakin’ cool. The President’s attendance, along with the hype that occurred this off-season around the sport, plus the tangible excitement felt by over 100,000 people at Daytona International Speedway to kick off what felt like the start to the latest chapter in NASCAR, made it feel different. In the best way possible. That’s how big time sporting events should feel.
And 200 yards from the start/finish line, the lights came back on the pace car, and the race was delayed due to rain. As Air Force One took off along the backstretch and the race resumed, it became more and more clear that this was going to be run Monday. Mother Nature came, and she won.
That’s gut punch number one.
I then switched to frantically trying to accommodate switching my flights, rental car, find a place to stay, etc., so I could remain in Daytona for the 500. I’d been there 13 days, I’d missed the 2012 500 due to rain and I damn sure wasn’t going to miss this one.
I did what I had to do, as many other race fans did, to stay for the second Great American Race ever run on a Monday. And when 4 p.m. rolled around and we went back green, the energy was still there. A little less intense, but there.
Not time for the second gut punch just yet.
As soon as I saw the No. 6 hit the wall, I didn’t think anything of it. Racing deal, typical Daytona, it happens, I thought. He’ll be fine.
Drivers always walk away unscathed from hits like that. Growing up in the modern era of safety within NASCAR, I had never second guessed if a driver was okay after a wreck. Not when Kyle Larson ripped apart the catch fence in 2013, or when Carl Edwards did in 2009, or when Austin Dillon did the same in 2015.
If they all walked away fine before, why would this be any different?
As Newman’s car slid to a stop and the sparks subsided, I saw the fire and fuel pouring out from the fuel cell.
“Put it out, put it out!” I yelled on pit road as I turned to the ISM Vision screen after the car slid out of my sight. Finally, they did.
“Okay, get him out, get him out!” I yelled next. As I tried to scan the No. 6 radio channel and looked around at other media doing the same, there was silence. Not a word from Newman.
It’s OK, his radio probably got unhooked in the crash, I thought. Man, that was bad, but he’ll be all right. They always are.
As time went on and I made my way to the infield care center to position for when Newman would eventually come out and address what happened, we got word that he’d be transported directly to the hospital.
Gut punch number two.
Drivers had been transported to the hospital before, albeit with less spectacular crashes. It didn’t feel different to me in the moment. Just a precaution, right? He’s fine. It’s Newman, he’ll be alright.
Then the black screens came out as they extracted him from the wreckage.
Gut punch number three.
My heart sank, my face fell, I became numb. This was bad.
In the two hours that followed, what seemed like all of social media sent out thoughts and prayers to Newman, while simultaneously begging for an update.
At 10:02 p.m. ET, Steve O’Donnell walked into the media center.
I prepared for gut punch number four, the worst possible news.
“Serious condition” and “non-life threatening” (injuries) were about the best words anybody could possibly hear at that time. Newman wasn’t OK, but he was going to be.
I’d never seen a fatality in NASCAR in my time watching it. I became a fan in 2001, but was 5 years old and too young to comprehend anything that happened with Dale Earnhardt.
But I’ve read, listened to and watched anything under the sun I can get my hands on that talk about those two days. From what I’ve consumed and the folks who covered those tragic events, Monday night felt about as close as you can get to it.
An unfortunate and somber ending to an incredible Speedweeks…
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) February 18, 2020
It was a stark reminder of the inherent danger of motorsports, something that we as a collective and me personally have taken for granted for the better part of almost two decades.
As we got the signs of improvement throughout the next 48 hours on Newman’s status, relief began to set in. Then, the best news.
Ryan Newman has been treated and released from Halifax Medical Center pic.twitter.com/J0twhGgQm7
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) February 19, 2020
A picture is worth a thousand words, and that one for damn sure put a smile on millions of faces.