After a rash of drivers died in fiery crashes in the 1960s, the fuel cell was invented to replace easily ruptured gas tanks. Pit-road speed limits were instituted in 1991, after a crew member was struck and killed during a frenzied pit stop. And after seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR responded on multiple fronts — mandating energy-absorbing barriers to cushion concrete track walls; designing less rigid racecars that help dissipate energy in a crash; and requiring carbon-fiber seats and head-and-neck restraints that encase drivers in a protective cocoon.
So what might NASCAR learn from the last-lap horror at Monday’s Daytona 500, in which race leader Ryan Newman’s Ford got knocked into the wall, took flight and flipped on its roof only to get rammed again by an onrushing car at nearly 190 mph?
Quite possibly, nothing.
The fact that Newman was not killed in the fiery maelstrom is a testament to NASCAR’s strides in making the sport safer.
According to an update from his race team Tuesday afternoon, the driver remained at Halifax Medical Center but was “awake and speaking.” The timetable for his recovery is unclear. But every indication is that the steps NASCAR took after Earnhardt’s death — steps that could and should have been taken sooner, following the deaths of lesser-known drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in a five-month span the year prior — played a key role in keeping Newman alive.
Yet Monday’s harrowing finish has played like a tape-loop in former racer Kyle Petty’s mind since.
“They say that time heals all wounds, but I have found in the last 24 hours that [that] is not true,” said Petty, 59, a third-generation NASCAR driver-turned-TV analyst, who lost his son, Adam, in a May 2000 wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Watching Ryan’s accident — watching him not get out of the car, watching everything that went on just about cut all the way to my soul — just like Adam’s accident did. It just reopened all of that.”
What Petty has concluded after thinking nonstop about Newman’s accident, he explained in a telephone interview Tuesday, is that in this case, there is no one to blame. And there may be nothing that needs changing.
“I don’t find fault in what the drivers did; I can’t find fault in what NASCAR did,” Petty said. “I can’t find fault in anything. The fault is in the stars.”
If there is a lesson in what unfolded at Daytona, then, it is a subtle one. And it is a bit of a paradox.
In surviving what appeared an un-survivable wreck, Newman extended a 19-year span in which no driver has died from racing injuries in NASCAR’s elite Cup division. Yet in making the sport safer, NASCAR may have created a false sense of security among today’s drivers — many of whom were in kindergarten when Earnhardt, regarded as the toughest man to strap into a racecar, was killed at Daytona.
The 40 drivers who contested the 2020 Daytona 500 included a rising generation of ambitious, aggressive racers for whom on-track death is an abstraction. Few, if any, have served as a pallbearer for a competitor, as their predecessors often did when death was more commonplace in racing. Nor did they live in the era when stock-car racing’s famed beauty queen, Linda Vaughn, packed a black dress in her suitcase for every race-day appearance in case a driver was killed and the funeral followed.
“Over the last several years, we’ve had some really serious wrecks at the faster superspeedways, but always the driver survives,” NASCAR Hall of Fame promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said. “I think the fact that it has been such a long time since we have had a fatality has led us to believe that immortality is part of the sport now.”
Newman’s wreck was a jolt of reality — a reminder to NASCAR drivers and fans alike that death is among the possible outcomes.
Perhaps that is a good thing.
That’s not to say that being confronted with the possibility will alter any driver’s career choice or tactics behind the wheel.
But it is surely a gut check to all NASCAR drivers to recommit to the bargain of risk vs. reward.
The best racers thrive on the razor’s edge, convinced they’re not doing their job if they’re not pushing the car to its limit — or just a bit beyond, when the Daytona 500 is at stake.
It is an assumed risk. And, as Newman’s crash illustrated, it is very real.
As Newman’s battered Mustang mercifully came to rest, flames spewing as he remained strapped inside, that risk was cast into stark relief.
“Anybody who has been around racing long could see it was a potentially lethal crash because he got hit in the driver’s [side], at the second-fastest track on the circuit,” Wheeler said. “All the sudden, he went from leading the race to being up in the air, his car destroyed. He’s not moving; he’s not saying anything over the radio. And it just brought out a cloud that was darker than India ink.”
The dread in former NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon’s eyes as Fox concluded its broadcast said exactly that.
Wrecks and thrilling finishes, however, are part of what NASCAR and its track promoters sell. A stock-car race without a wreck would be like an NFL game without tackling.
But amid the sport’s admirable gains in safety, NASCAR drivers and fans have grown accustomed to happy endings to stories that begin with cars colliding in the waning laps of high-speed races at Daytona and Talladega. Some spin out; others smack the wall or flip down the straightway. But the driver climbs out, waves to the crowd and even cracks a joke later — as Clint Bowyer did after sliding upside down and in flames across the finish line of the 2007 Daytona 500.
Bowyer, now 40, still races in NASCAR and finished sixth Monday.
But as all drivers come to realize, the razor’s edge is a perilous place to earn a living.
Said former NASCAR racer Ricky Craven, who retired from Cup racing in 2004 after battling lingering effects of a concussion suffered years earlier in a wreck at Texas Motor Speedway: “One of the requirements to become a successful driver is to acknowledge the risk but not be preoccupied with the risk. That’s actually not that difficult for hungry, determined drivers — particularly early in their career. It can become much more difficult later in life, following an injury, because then you can become preoccupied with the risk.”