For a guy who recently finished a book on some of the deadliest years of professional racing—and the safety revolution those years spawned—I felt strangely numb the day after Ryan Newman escaped from his finish-line crash at the Daytona 500. A brutal series of events, the crash included four different circumstances in a couple of seconds that could have potentially killed the driver.
The end of this Daytona 500 was like a near-death experience, except not your own. Once the thankful outcome became certain, there’s an aftermath. Relief comes first and before nagging doubts finally pass in one last shudder of horror.
On Tuesday the day after, I found initial relief in some thoughtful online comments plus the professional work of a couple of fellow commentators. Writer Ryan McGee and broadcaster Ricky Craven helped sum up that whole oddball process of a brilliant racing enterprise, invariably part ritual and part magic, turning into something else.
Those two summed up the nagging doubts that creep in when the close-to-the-bone nature of racing gets revealed and how the sport’s community of participants and fans face up to the reality of the mechanized, ritualized danger. Oh, there was plenty of standard stuff out there, too. Some expressed their doubts by criticizing the drivers—or NASCAR for how it operates the races on the Daytona and Talladega tracks. Some took it as an opportunity to express envy disguised as sarcasm because NASCAR’s stock cars and drivers are so popular compared to their own preferred style of racing.
In fact, the Daytona 500 requires each driver to make critical split-second decisions at sustained speeds of 200 mph every lap. If it becomes a race of cautions and attrition, well nobody complained in the years when only three or four drivers finished on the lead lap.
I felt lifted, and fully relieved, at the end of the day on Tuesday when I came across one road racing photographer’s Facebook post that was a funny take on his family members’ relative lack of racing knowledge. It underscored that everybody, not just race fans, were talking about Newman’s crash. (This was a particularly poignant as well as funny post considering the family has been fighting, successfully, alongside a teenage son in his battle with cancer.)
The potential for gut-wrenching outcomes have always been there in racing and will continue. Newman’s crash, for example, was a reminder of Sebastien Bourdais’s head-on collision with the barrier at Indy during qualifying for the 500 in 2017 at a speed of 227 mph. The difference was the French driver, who suffered a fractured pelvis and broken hip, remained conscious and alert afterward, immediately easing fears of the worst-case scenario. By contrast, it took almost a week for Newman to release a statement that he had suffered a head injury and would return to full-time status pending a medical clearance.
The replays of Newman’s finish-line crash will be repeated ad infinitum—because the driver survives to tell about it. I like this element, given that I wrote a book titled “CRASH!” containing voluminous research on how the safety revolution brought racing to the point where this kind of crash can be survived.
The safety revolution occurred across all the world’s major racing series. It started in Formula 1 with the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna in 1994. CART simultaneously began making major safety improvements after the injurious crash of two-time world champion Nelson Piquet during practice at Indy; CART became the first to mandate the HANS device prior to the 2001 season. The movement then came to NASCAR as a result of four driver deaths over a nine-month period, including Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona. Given that these series operate in their own orbits and fans often do likewise, very few fully recognized how the safety revolution actually occurred. And how decisions in all three of these series helped make it happen.
The book is subtitled “From Senna to Earnhardt” for this reason. One could argue that their deaths—the great F1 champion from an errant suspension piece and Earnhardt from a basal skull fracture—during races watched by tens of millions of fans on live television were the two biggest events in motor racing in the last 100 years. After a full century of professional racing where death was commonplace, organizers realized, as we all did at this year’s Daytona 500, the sport simply could not be sustained if it continued to kill its drivers on live television.
There’s a touch of controversy to the book because it’s based on the idea that the brilliant work of so many dedicated racing professionals to achieve the safety revolution might have faltered absent the HANS Device. That’s the organizing principle of the story and the reason for the other subtitle: “How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” I worked directly with HANS inventor Dr. Robert Hubbard and his business partner, five-time IMSA champion Jim Downing, to write the book. But the thesis is entirely mine. Resolving the issue of basal skull fractures was the one thing sanctioning bodies could not figure out entirely on their own. During the 1990s, this type of injury was the most frequent cause of death or critical injury in all forms of major league racing around the world.
There’s no doubt all the elements of safety developed by NASCAR came into play on this year’s Monday running of the Daytona 500. The cockpit safety cocoon with its carbon-fiber seat, six-point harness, the head surrounds and a head restraint were the first line of defense. The SAFER barrier did its job—which includes sufficiently reducing g-forces so that the cockpit restraints could do their job without being compromised. The impacts of Newman’s Ford getting hit in the door and then the final impact of landing on its roof – in addition to the initial impact with the wall – all showed the value of NASCAR’s Gen 6 car construction requirements.
When it comes to safety, NASCAR operates from its own dedicated Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., which makes it the world leader. (The FIA’s Formula 1 and IndyCar must rely, in part, on vendors instead of a fully equipped staff under one roof.) Although it’s not really feasible, I, for one, would like to see the in-car video from Newman’s cockpit taken by one of the recent innovations of a digital camera installed to observe what happens to the driver during a crash.
It’s not as if the safety revolution stands still. F-1 has introduced the life-saving Halo and IndyCar enters the 2020 season with the first generation of the Aeroscreen in place. Roger Penske’s ownership may yet lead to improvements in track fencing for open-wheel cars. Competitors to the HANS have emerged and the cost of a certified head restraint continues to decrease without a compromise in safety. (My favorite new arrival is the innovative Flex made by Schroth.) Weekend warriors can no longer offer the excuse that head restraints, which are needed in all forms of auto racing, are too costly, too uncomfortable or don’t fit in their vehicle.
History reminds us that far too many drivers died while Rome was burning and before the major sanctioning bodies recognized they needed to apply their technical and financial resources to greatly reduce the chance of death behind the wheel. The sanctioning bodies realized they had to act to save a sport dependent on the fan appeal of star drivers and dependent upon participation by car manufacturers, TV networks and corporate sponsors. This Daytona 500 was a reminder they did the right thing.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. His seventh book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt—How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. His Amazon bio is located at https://amzn.to/2wwPQ3V . To see “CRASH” excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)