Ryan Newman’s Daytona 500 wreck reminds us of racing’s danger
Bullet-proof? Nope, not yet.
The advances in safety since the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 have been monumental. To the point that many of us decided we can abide the insanity of pack-racing at Daytona because, hey, they’ve tucked these guys in a womb and shielded them from all those things that injured and killed so many in the past.
And that largely explains an initial reaction as Ryan Newman crashed into the tri-oval wall and began his tumble and slide as the Daytona 500 mercifully concluded Monday night.
“Thank God he didn’t tear down the fence; we’ve seen enough of that.”
The rest of the crash was violent and scary and fiery and, yes, the type of thing we’ve grown accustomed to seeing guys walk away from. A tip of the cap to the very smart folks at NASCAR’s Research and Development center in Concord, N.C., where they dissect every NASCAR crash — big and small — in every type of NASCAR racing.
It’s not just a stroke of amazing luck that no NASCAR racer has been lost since Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 death. Safety restraints (particularly the HANS Device), soft walls, crush panels … so many advances, but still, if an inch of possibility exists anywhere, no matter the odds against it being discovered, it eventually will be.
An exposed driver’s side with the car upside down, and an oncoming car at high speed, with no chance of avoidance, can be described as a frightening inch of possibility. Watch the replays, particularly in slow motion, and that moment of impact when Corey LaJoie slams into Newman’s car makes you flinch every time.
These are steel-framed chassis, and Newman’s entire car buckles at impact. They’re designed to allow some give, but that had to go beyond anyone’s engineering tolerance levels. Then you consider that the point of impact was Newman’s window area, and you get a couple hours of anxiety while awaiting official word.
The official and important words: “Non-life threatening.”
The wreck itself was somewhat similar to Geoff Bodine’s grinder in the 2000 truck race, which happened in the same area of the track. Unlike the initial thought with Newman, everyone was convinced Bodine couldn’t have survived. But Bodine’s injuries were also non-life threatening, and today he lives a good life about 90 miles south of Daytona Beach.
That’s the obvious hope today.
Now, another obvious: This is the horrible price you’ll potentially pay if you insist on this type of racing at Daytona (and sister track Talladega). These days they use something called “tapered spacers,” which replaced the carburetor restrictor plates, but like the plates they hamstring horsepower, equalize the field and promote large packs of traffic.
And that leads to the seemingly inevitable calamity, which we’ve come to sum up in almost playful terminology: The Big One.
At best, a trip to Daytona costs teams a ton of money in battered equipment. At worst … what we saw Monday.
Certainly, you’d think, there’s a way to keep the cars under the 200 mph mark at Daytona without bunching everyone together and inviting bad things to happen. But look at the TV ratings from races at Daytona and Talladega, compared to other tracks, and you’ll see that everyone enjoys a tightrope act.
Over recent years, it seemed as if that tightrope act came with a safety net underneath. Driver after driver walked away from wreck after wreck. And then one left by ambulance and we’re reminded there are still some frayed seams in that net.
The law of averages finally caught up with the lure of pack-racin’. And unless someone finds a way to race here that entertains the masses without the highly increased chance of mayhem, we’ll continue seeing the Big One and, eventually, another Bad One.
Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.