Newman’s Daytona 500 crash reminds us of fragility of life in dangerous sport

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“Does anyone have an update on Ryan Newman?”

Joe Gibbs, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, Denny Hamlin’s car owner and as of about 10 minutes earlier, a four-time Daytona 500 champion, had slipped into the racetrack’s Victory Lane unnoticed. That’s how he wanted it. He refused to step onstage until someone could give him an update on a demolished racecar that was still surrounded by safety crews and still smoldering out on the racetrack, even now, well after the race had ended.

“Gosh,” Gibbs said when his request was met with shrugs and confusion. “I hate this feeling so much.”

The attraction to motorsports, whether it be NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One or the local bullring just a few miles from your house, isn’t the sounds or the smells or even the speed and the danger. No, the true lure of putting fragile human beings in physics-bending metal machines and pitting them against one another in a gladiatorial arena, it’s about how it makes us feel.

We are thrilled and we are scared, and the hair stands up on our arms and our knees get weak where we sit. Racing makes us scream, smile and cry, often all at once. Like a great movie or a perfect piece of music, motorsports takes us out of our cubicles and away from our tax preparation and out of the school drop-off line, it wakes us up.

Racing makes us feel something for a change.

On Monday evening, standing in Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway and watching the NASCAR Cup Series stock cars roar by along the frontstretch, all of those feeling were turned up to the max. My internal woofers thumping so hard it made my chest throb. From our vantage point, the only glimpse we could get through the fencing that separated Daytona’s racing surface from its most hallowed real estate was when the cars flashed by on the frontstretch, just past the start-finish line.

Their last trip through that space, the checkered flag was in the air, but so was Newman’s racecar. There was tire smoke, but there was also smoke from a fire. The winner’s car was doing celebratory donuts in the grass, but there were also safety crews racing to an upside-down machine nearby.

Before Denny Hamlin pulled his Toyota into that Victory Lane, racetrack and NASCAR staffers were on their phones and listening to their earpieces. When Hamlin’s Camry finally rolled up, he immediately sensed something was wrong, but no one knew anything. There were tweets here and there. We could see race fans gathered at the frontstretch fence, craning their necks to see if Newman was showing any signs of life, but that was it.

The uncertainty went on. And on. And on. That helplessness is a pall, a cloud with the ability to envelope an entire racetrack in an instant. When I first start covering motorsports 25 years ago, that feeling crawling down your spine and into your gut, it was a regular occurrence.

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0:59

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell provides an update on Ryan Newman after his crash on the final lap at Daytona 500 and reads a statement from Newman’s family.

I went through a stretch from 1996-2001 where I was in attendance for no less than five driver deaths and also the deaths of six spectators, three each at two different open-wheel races. The racing deaths that I didn’t cover in person I still researched and wrote their obituaries. There were so many.

I looked into quitting and walking away to cover something else, anything else. My friends who covered stick and ball sports, this didn’t happen to them. They didn’t wake up in hotel rooms having cold-sweat dreams about covering yet another funeral of another racecar driver that I had gotten to know who was now gone forever.

But even still, I loved it so much. This sport that supplies us with so many great feelings, but also constantly threatens us with the worst feeling of them all, grief.

Monday night felt extra-worse to those in Daytona 500 Victory Lane on February 17, 2020, because that’s exactly where so many of us were on February 18, 2001. That’s the day that Michael Waltrip‘s race-winning celebration was cut short when the news was delivered that his friend and car owner, Dale Earnhardt, had died in a crash on the race’s final lap. That’s how most of us realized that The Intimidator was dead, when we saw the color drain from Waltrip’s face.

Anyone of a certain age who was in Victory Lane on Monday night watched Hamlin very closely, how he interacted with everyone he talked to, afraid that one of those people would be the one delivering the bad news to Hamlin, and by connection us, that Newman was gone.

Thankfully, that day in 2001 was the final straw. Thankfully, The Intimidator’s death forced NASCAR to finally implement a long-overdue safety makeover of its racecars. And thankfully, no one has died in one of NASCAR’s three national touring series since that day.

But because of that, we went and got spoiled, didn’t we? In the years since, we have watched so many crashes that looked so much worse than the ones that killed all of those racers back in the day. And yet today’s competitors, nearly every single one of them walked away. So much so, there have even been columns written and debates broadcast on the topic, “Has NASCAR become too safe?”

On Monday night, Newman didn’t walk away. He was cut out of his car and hauled away, carried in an ambulance down the same frontstretch where he had just wrecked and taken to the same nearby hospital where so many of his Daytona predecessors, including Earnhardt, exhaled their last earthly breaths. Nothing felt safe about it.

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Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs explain the timeline of events at the end of the Daytona 500 and apologize for celebrating but admit they did not know the severity of Ryan Newman’s crash.

There will always be those who will argue that danger is the most important aspect of the sport. They’re the ones who like to point to the on-track sacrifices of Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Ayrton Senna and the countless rosters of the deceased from Daytona and Indianapolis. Those are the folks who love to quote Hemingway: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

But give me A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Richard Petty and the like. To quote another pretty good writer, Bruce Springsteen: “Personally, I like my gods old and grizzled and here … the exit in a blaze of glory is bulls–t.”

An hour after being in Victory Lane with Gibbs and Hamlin, I was standing with a pack of other reporters outside Halifax Medical Center, a place I used to frequent during those early-career darkest days of death, but that I hadn’t visited in a long, long time. There were several NASCAR fans hanging about, waiting with the media corps as we all waited on an official update. When it came — “Ryan Newman … serious condition … but non-life-threatening injuries” — some of those fans let out a cheer. Most of my fellow veteran reporters hopped back into their cars to go back to the racetrack.

Was the feeling that came with that announcement relief? Sure. But really, it felt more like a bullet dodged. A reminder that in this sport, the specter of death never fully goes away even when we are afforded the luxury of forgetting about it. Even when we are lulled to sleep about the dangers, when we become safety spoiled.

One young reporter hid behind a news van, burning a cigarette as her hands shook. “You ever had to deal with this before?”

I told her, all the time, but not in a long time.

“I can’t look at that crash anymore. I really thought Newman was dead. Did you?”

I did. We all did. For one night, that old Daytona feeling came back, for the first time in a long time. I hadn’t missed it.

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