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

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — “Does anyone have an update on Ryan Newman?”

Joe Gibbs, a 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 driver in a demolished race car 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 is about how it makes us feel.

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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 Daytona International Speedway and watching the NASCAR Cup Series stock cars roar by along the frontstretch, all of those feelings were turned up to the max. My internal woofers thumped 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.

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

Before Hamlin pulled his Toyota into 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 whether Newman was showing 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 envelop an entire racetrack in an instant.

When I started covering motorsports 25 years ago, that feeling crawling down your spine and into your gut was a regular occurrence. During a stretch from 1996 to 2001, I was in attendance for the deaths of no fewer than five drivers and 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 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, like I did, having cold-sweat dreams about covering yet another funeral of another race car driver I had gotten to know who was now gone forever.

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.

Daytona 500’s Victory Lane felt extra worse to those in it on Feb. 17, 2020, because that’s exactly where so many of us were on Feb. 18, 2001. That’s the day that Michael Waltrip’s race-winning celebration was cut short when 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 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 last straw for NASCAR. Thankfully, The Intimidator’s death forced the governing body to finally implement a long-overdue safety makeover of its race cars. 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? Since 2001, we have watched many crashes that looked much worse than the ones that killed all of those racers back in the day. Yet nearly every one of those competitors has walked away. So much so that columns have been written and debates have been 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, driven in an ambulance down the same frontstretch where he had just wrecked and taken to the same nearby hospital where many of his Daytona predecessors 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 argue that danger is the most important aspect of the sport. They’re the ones who like to point to the on-the-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—.”

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 that I used to frequent during those early-career darkest days of death but that I hadn’t visited in a long, long time. Several NASCAR fans were 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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