It was the second crash, the crash within the crash, that made the horror tangible, that took it from a thrilling finish to a moment that made you catch your breath, put your hand to your mouth, and put yourself where Ryan Newman was: strapped into a car that was hurtling through the air, landing upside down on the asphalt of Daytona International Speedway and skidding to a stop in a shower of orange sparks, a ball of fire exploding then disappearing and a smaller flame stubbornly burning by the left rear tire.
Inside the Fox broadcast booth Monday, Jeff Gordon could see something brewing on this, the final lap of the Daytona 500. Newman was in the lead, but Denny Hamlin was charging after him, and Gordon, who had won Daytona three times himself, said, “This thing’s not over yet. Not at all.” And he was right.
Around Turn 4, four cars separated themselves, and Ryan Blaney’s clipped Newman’s, sending Newman into the wall. And it was exciting, because it was the kind of thing you often see in a NASCAR race and might want to see at the end of the Daytona 500. Since Dale Earnhardt in 2001, no driver had died in a NASCAR race, because Earnhardt’s death had inspired NASCAR to improve its safety measures to the point that those measures are practically miraculous, because they have conditioned everyone who loves the sport or watches just one race a year to assume that every driver will walk away from every crash.
But then Newman’s car rebounded off the wall into Corey LaJoie’s path and flipped over, and when LaJoie hit Newman, the collision launched Newman’s car into more flips, the vehicle resembling a giant metallic high-diver, and Gordon said, “Upside down” before the car finally came to rest inside the infield.
The others zoomed past. Hamlin won. It didn’t matter. A sick quiet fell over the bleachers, a feeling that has always been unwelcome at NASCAR events, that once had been more common and, before Monday, had become unfamiliar in recent years. Technology had been a marvelous shield. It looked like it no longer was, and the truth that had been simmering beneath the sport’s surface for nearly two decades — that you can die doing it — bubbled back up again.
What were other racers thinking as they watched this? Did the scene fill them with the same dread as it did everyone else? Five years ago, before one of his final races at Pocono Raceway, Gordon leaned against the countertop in the kitchen area of his team’s trailer and took me, instant by instant, through the worst crash of his career: at the 2006 Pocono 500. His recall of it was extraordinary. A rotor in his right front brake had failed, and he was unsure, in retrospect, of just one detail: the reason it had failed. Was the team running a lighter-weight brake package that day? Had the speed of the car increased? Had he been using the brakes more aggressively? He didn’t know.
Everything else was clear: how his foot went to the floor, how he saw something fly off the hood of his car, how any race car pushing 200 mph seems to pick up another 10 mph once the driver knows his brakes are gone, how he considered turning right, into the wall, to slow himself but instead turned hard left, threw the car into first gear, and shot across the grass, tumbling and slamming into a barrier, giving himself a good, long look at the sky. It was so damn analytical, how he told it, as if he’d downloaded the description.
They teach themselves to think this way, to bury the fear while they’re behind the wheel. The competitiveness becomes all-consuming, as it is for any elite athlete in any sport. At the free-throw line, professional basketball players have one thing on their minds: Make the ball go through the basket. They’re deaf to the crowd’s jeers, blind to everything else in the arena. During a race, a driver doesn’t dwell on the awful possibilities of what might happen, not then.
“When you do this as often as you do it and you get into that moment, you’re not thinking about, ‘Man, this guy could come from here and kick me out, and my career could be over, or I’d be a vegetable,’” Gordon said. “I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen if I blow a brake rotor.
"It’s ‘How do I get the car to victory lane?’ The adrenaline that comes from it is that you have to push the car so hard. You have to push yourself, and there’s so much going on mentally. You’re working with your team and the car, and you’re trying not only to drive it as fast as you can, but thinking about things that can be done to make it go faster and trying to think about what line I can take to pass this car. How do I not make mistakes and execute flawlessly? That’s what’s on my mind. I’m not thinking about the risk.”
Ryan Newman probably wasn’t, either, not as he approached Turn 4, with his second Daytona 500 victory in his sights. The sport had been so safe for so long. How many people were thinking about the risk? Later Monday night, word finally came: Newman was in serious condition at Halifax Medical Center. His injuries were not life-threatening. And on Tuesday, his team released an update that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors. You watch a replay of that crash and wonder how that could be. You wonder how anyone could bury that fear and if anyone really does. And you listen to the Fox telecast, and for more than a full minute, as the wreckage smokes, Jeff Gordon doesn’t say a word.