As the minutes ticked by, the all-too-familiar dread grew.
While Denny Hamlin celebrated a victory in the Daytona 500, emergency crews tended to the wrecked car of Ryan Newman, who’d been turned upside down and t-boned in the driver’s-side window.
No word came from Newman’s radio.
Emergency crews eventually unloaded Newman from the vehicle and into an ambulance, which drove back down the Daytona International Speedway frontstretch, lights flashing.
And still—no word on Newman’s condition.
Here is the final lap of the Daytona 500 in which Ryan Newman's car was flipped at the line.
We will continue to keep you updated on his status as we learn more. pic.twitter.com/qkEwQBpoP0
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 18, 2020
Drivers and fans alike flooded social media with hopes and prayers, Bible verses and pleas. Fox Sports’ Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon recounted the race’s final laps in solemn voices as the night’s live broadcast ended. Media gathered outside the emergency room at Halifax Medical Center just across Speedway Boulevard from the track.
Minutes turned into hours, and still—no word.
The night bore an eerie similarity to the afternoon, 19 years ago almost to the day, that Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500, victim of a vicious head-on crash into the wall above Turn 4. Then as now, emergency crews tended to the wrecked vehicle as a celebration unfolded a little ways down the track. Then as now, crews brought out ominous screens to block the view of the cars’ interiors. Then as now, Joy spoke in precise, measured tones about the celebration and the wreck. Then as now, the ambulance rolled off in the direction of the same hospital. And, then as now, a NASCAR official faced the press with word on the driver’s condition.
In 2001, then-NASCAR president Mike Helton had to deliver a tragic line: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Monday night, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell brought a far better outcome: that Newman “is in serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life-threatening.” Considering the look of the wreck and the condition of Newman’s car, that qualifies as a technology-aided miracle.
The two accidents share more than an incidental connection. Simply put: Ryan Newman would not have survived this wreck had it happened in 2001. The safety initiatives that NASCAR fast-tracked in the wake of Earnhardt’s death — safer walls, safer helmets, safer neck-restraint systems, safer harnesses, safer cars — quite literally kept Newman alive Monday night.
Newman was leading the final lap of the Daytona 500, looking to block Ryan Blaney and hold on for what would have been his second Daytona victory. But Blaney’s bumper caught Newman, sending him rifling straight into the wall. His car flipped upward, shearing off sheet metal as it flew, and landed roof-side-down in the middle of the track. Corey Lajoie, unable to see through the smoke from the wreck, plowed straight into Newman’s driver’s-side window — the most vulnerable point on the car.
Dang I hope Newman is ok. That is worst case scenerio and I had nowhere to go but smoke.
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) February 18, 2020
Physics comes into play at a time like this; the more a car is flipping, the more kinetic energy it’s throwing off. A car flying through the air gives a driver a better chance of survival than a car that stops suddenly. It’s that sudden impact that causes the most damage, whether from a wall or from an oncoming bumper.
The size of a track like Daytona — with Talladega, one of NASCAR’s two superspeedways — compounds the problem. The high banks and long straightaways of Daytona allow cars to hit 200 miles per hour, exponentially increasing the chance of catastrophe. On many occasions, Newman has called for NASCAR to take more steps to keep the cars on the ground at superspeedways; this near-tragedy could serve as a tipping point, much as Earnhardt’s did two decades ago.
The severity of Newman’s injuries remains, at this writing, unknown. What’s indisputable is that Newman was driving a car that’s orders of magnitude safer than what Earnhardt did. The safety cage, the helmet, the neck protection system, the walls cushioning against impact — all worked as they were supposed to, all somehow managed to keep him alive when all visual evidence would have suggested otherwise.
No driver has died in a NASCAR event since Earnhardt. Monday night was as close as the sport has come since then. It’s a grim truth that Earnhardt’s death has, in turn, saved many future drivers’ lives, including Ryan Newman’s.
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