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Tragic era in NASCAR led to Newman survival

Jeff Birchfield • Feb 19, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Ryan Newman’s survival of a horrific wreck at the end of the Daytona 500 served as a reminder of how far NASCAR safety innovations have come since one of the most tragic eras in NASCAR racing.

It also shows that safety remains a moving target and how dangerous the racing continues to be at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.

Over a period from May 2000 to February 2001, there were four deaths in NASCAR’s three major series. Fourth-generation racer Adam Petty was killed in a Busch Series practice crash at New Hampshire, where two months later Cup Series driver Kenny Irwin Jr. would lose his life in another practice crash.

Tony Roper was killed in a Truck Series race at Texas, while the last fatality in any major NASCAR series was seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt’s death at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.

While safety was a major topic heading into that 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s death prompted immediate changes — most notably making head and neck restraints mandatory.

Tracks installed SAFER barriers around the concrete walls to dissipate much of the energy upon impact and NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” moved the driver closer to the center of the car. That and other safety innovations were transferred to the current car.

The seats in the modern car have been described as a cocoon around the drivers. All of these factors and others contributed to Newman surviving Monday’s crash.

By its nature, auto racing is an inherently dangerous sport. Any time a car moving at a high rate of speed collides with a solid object like the outside wall or is impacted by another car, there’s always the possibility of a worst-case scenario. In Newman’s case, his No. 6 Ford slammed the wall, was hit in the driver’s side by Corey LaJoie’s car, flew up in the air, slammed to the ground and skidded on its roof down the frontstretch.

All of us who love racing push the dangers to the back of our minds. Yet we are occasionally reminded of them, even at the local short tracks.

Over the past couple of seasons, there have been multiple wrecks at the 3/8-mile Kingsport Speedway and the Volunteer Speedway dirt track where you’re thankful the driver walked away without serious injury.

At NASCAR’s highest levels, the danger is ramped up substantially at the plate tracks.

There have been 28 deaths in NASCAR’s top series and Daytona has been the site of eight of those tragedies. Restrictor plates to cut down air flow on the engines were mandated at NASCAR’s two largest tracks following Bobby Allison’s 1987 crash where his car ripped apart a huge section of the catchfence at Talladega.

While the restrictor plates did their jobs in slowing down the speeds, the cars raced in tighter packs than ever before. Newman isn’t the first driver to survive a truly spectacular crash at Daytona.

Geoff Bodine suffered multiple broken bones after an incredibly scary wreck in a 2000 Truck Series race.

During the 2001 Daytona 500, Tony Stewart had a wreck much more spectacular than Earnhardt’s fatal crash as his No. 20 Pontiac flipped over other cars. Newman experienced another violent crash at the end of the 2003 Daytona 500 when the rear axle was ripped from his car.

More recently, Kyle Larson’s wreck in a 2013 Xfinity Series race at Daytona and Austin Dillon’s crash in the 2015 Coke Zero 400 saw drivers walk away from cars whose front and back ends had been sheared off by the catchfence.

When Newman didn’t walk away from his car, safety crews covered the scene to extract him from the car. When he was taken directly to Halifax Hospital, it was grim reminder of the dangers of the sport.

The news that Newman survived the accident brought a huge sense of relief to everyone in the sport. It is also a moment to thank those who have continued the work to make the sport safer since that tragic era at the start of the century.

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO

Jimmy Owens, nicknamed the “Newport Nightmare,” ended his Speedweeks in style, winning three straight World of Outlaws Late Model Series races in the DIRTCar Nationals at Volusia Speedway.

Owens, 48, had never won at the Barbourville, Fla., track prior to last week. In Saturday night’s finale, he passed Kyle Bronson for the lead with 11 laps to go. His No. 20 Chevrolet powered away as Ricky Weiss got by Bronson for the runner-up spot.

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