Anatomy of a miracle: How Ryan Newman survived NASCAR’s worst crash in decades

Jay Busbee
·23 min read

There’s a three-day hole in Ryan Newman’s memory.

Three days, completely gone, unrecoverable, like photos erased from a phone. Three days where he became, for a moment, one of the most famous people in America. Three days where everyone right up to the President of the United States knew his name. Three days where he went from leading the Great American Race to nearly dying in the Daytona International Speedway infield.

The last thing Ryan Newman remembers about the 2020 Daytona 500 is having shrimp for lunch at his parents’ place about 40 minutes from the track. The next point his memory truly kicks in is when he was preparing to walk out the doors of Halifax Medical Center, days after NASCAR’s most terrifying crash in two decades.

A few days after that, Newman found himself back at his parents’ house. He and his dad were watching a replay of the race. Watching the laps wind down. Watching himself, driving a No. 6 Koch Industries Ford, come wheeling out of Turn 4, all of NASCAR on his bumper. Watching as that finish line grew closer, and so did his rivals. Then watching his entire world explode around him. Watching, because he can’t remember a minute of it.

“Dad,” Newman said, “what the hell happened?”

Ryan Newman (6) and Brad Keselowski (2) lead the field on a restart to resume the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Sunday's race was postponed because of rain. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Ryan Newman (6) leads the field on a restart to resume the 2020 Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2020. (AP)

The Great American Rainout

This is a story with a happy ending. It’s worth remembering that going in. But the journey is still harrowing as hell.

We begin back at the infield of Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, a time that already feels like a bygone era. Thousands of fans gathered at Daytona without a mask in sight, in pockets, or even in mind. COVID-19 had already arrived in America, but on Feb. 16, 2020, it was still nearly a month away from shutting down the entire country.

President Donald Trump, looking to shore up support against a still-undetermined Democratic challenger, arrived in the friendly confines of Daytona to raucous cheers. He took the mic in the Daytona infield at 2:33 p.m.

"My fellow race fans, the Daytona 500 is a legendary display,” Trump began, kicking off a speech that would last four minutes. Chants of “U-S-A” accompanied his words, and as he delivered his closing line — "Rubber will burn, fans will scream and The Great American Race will begin” — the opening strains of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” echoed across the track.

With wife Melania at his side, Trump gave the starting command — “Gentlemen, start your engines!” — and the groundshaking rumble of 40 cars washed up and over the crowd. Trump and his detail entered the presidential motorcade, then led the field on a pace lap around the 2.5-mile track.

Newman, in the fourth row alongside Kyle Larson, could hear the president come over the drivers’ frequency on his radio.

"You are the best in the world at what you do, and I want to wish you luck in today’s Daytona 500. I hope you all have a fantastic race,” Trump said. “The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in the world and all of America is watching. Give the fans a great show!”

The race for the checkered flag

The “great show” didn’t even get started before the rains came. After several delays, NASCAR pushed the race to Monday.

Green flag was scheduled for 4 p.m. ET, about two hours before sunset. At 2 p.m., the Track Services team held its weekly meeting, this time in the cavernous Daytona driver’s meeting room, to go over what to do in case of emergency. Just that weekend, they’d practiced how to handle a rollover drill in the event a car ended up on its roof.

Once the race restarted on Monday afternoon, it ran cleanly for most of its 200 scheduled laps. Major wrecks late in the race collected contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch. On the final lap of the second overtime, Newman worked his way to the front of the pack, blowing past Denny Hamlin for the lead. And that’s where Newman found himself on the final turn of the final lap: trying to hold off the entire field with the finish line so near and yet so far.

“As a driver, when you’re in that position, you’re trying to figure out what percentage of your driving is offense, and what percentage is defense,” Newman said. “I was in a defensive position, which is easy to say, hard to do.”

“Typically when we have two cars racing for a finish this big and this important, there’s a 50-percent chance of calamity,” said Fox lead NASCAR announcer Mike Joy. “Five or six cars, and there’s an even chance one ends up on its lid. That’s just the way superspeedway racing is.”

Hamlin dropped in behind second-place Ryan Blaney and began pushing Blaney forward, looking to channel the power of two cars to override Newman’s one. But Blaney wobbled off Hamlin’s push, and when he settled his car, he locked in behind the No. 6 and prepared to push Newman to the win.

But bump-drafting at 200 miles per hour is like threading a needle while riding in whitewater rapids. Blaney’s bumper didn’t quite line up with Newman’s, and chaos began.

Newman’s car whipped hard to the right, up the track, just narrowly missing Hamlin’s car. Newman hit the SAFER barriers around the track almost head-on, and then got airborne. His car flipped upside down and ended up sailing toward the finish line with the driver’s side facing oncoming traffic.

Corey Lajoie, still driving at green flag speed, slammed straight into Newman’s car on the driver’s side, sending it airborne once again. The 6 car slid on the driver’s side, upside down, spraying sparks and shearing off debris until it came to rest.

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule of physics, but it’s a counterintuitive fact: the worse a wreck looks, the better it is for a driver. The most serious threat to a driver is the kinetic forces shearing through the car; in other words, it’s not the speed that causes harm, but the sudden stop. Every flip and turn of a car in motion bleeds off a little more of that kinetic energy, away from the driver. So at first, it appeared Newman’s wreck would be another in a long line of theatrical catastrophes where the driver walked away.

(Fox)
(Fox)

The wreck

“We did not see any one serious impact when Newman went up and into the fence. That dissipated a lot of energy,” Joy said. “Only on the first replay, when we saw the force that Corey LaJoie hit the car with, did we realize what a serious situation this was.”

Fox’s production truck was posted in a broadcast village out beyond Turn 3. There, producer Barry Landis had to orchestrate a broadcast that both encompassed the magnitude of Hamlin’s victory and the serious events unfolding in Turn 1.

“As soon as you saw the 6 car skidding, it was obvious this was no ordinary wreck,” Landis said. “When you have a moment like that, we no longer work for Fox. We no longer work for NASCAR. We’re working for the family of whatever driver is in that car. That dictates your tone, and to oversensationalize before you know the driver’s fate is irresponsible.”

Out in the infield, Hamlin — who had won the race, his second straight Daytona 500 victory — was celebrating with his team. But it wasn’t long before he was told there would be no traditional victory lane celebration and no postrace interview.

“I walked out to pit road,” said Jordan Bianchi, a writer for The Athletic. “Normally the finish of the Daytona 500 is all noise. There’s the winning team celebrating, sometimes there’s the losing teams angry, there’s cheering, there’s just noise. But that night it was eerily quiet.”

Normal procedure in a wreck calls for the driver to unhook the netting covering the window, a signal to the team and safety personnel that the driver is alert and conscious. Newman’s net remained up.

“Talk to us when you can, buddy,” Newman’s father Greg said over the team radio. Silence.

NASCAR has a specific code it uses for its most severe wrecks, and protocol calls for the use of a secondary radio channel. The code went out virtually before Newman’s car had stopped sliding, and NASCAR’s safety team went to work. Fire safety crews were at Newman’s car in 19 seconds, and rescue workers 15 seconds after that. A paramedic climbed into the wreckage, and for Joy, “that was a big red flag.”

“Every week we’re drilling for the worst thing that happens, so when an event happens like this, it triggers years of muscle memory,” said John Bobo, NASCAR’s VP of Racing Operations. “It was an amazing concert of action, people and first responders.”

Rescue workers arrive to check on Ryan Newman after he was involved in a wreck on the last lap of the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Rescue workers arrive to check on Ryan Newman after he was involved in a wreck on the last lap of the 2020 Daytona 500. (AP)

Flames were licking upward from the car as fluid leaked onto the track around it. Fire safety crews sprayed down the flames as medical professionals worked on Newman. Meanwhile, Fox’s cameras kept a respectful distance.

“It was self-explanatory, what was going on,” Landis said. “We’re not going to run a replay of the event until we know the situation of the driver in the car.”

NASCAR won’t disclose what Newman’s condition was at the time safety personnel arrived at the car, and Newman himself was unconscious. The driver’s safety cage was crushed inward, and Newman’s helmet had sustained significant damage. Fellow drivers were later informed of the severity, if not the precise specifics, of Newman’s dire condition at that moment.

In cases of severe head trauma, it’s not uncommon for victims of a crash to suffer immediate physiological consequences. “Some processes in the brain are built from the embryological state, like breathing spontaneously without thinking,” said Dr. Kester Nedd, a neurologist and concussion specialist in Miami. “When the brain is sufficiently injured, that system shuts down, and we’re not able to breathe spontaneously. We have to have a machine breathe for us.”

The wrecker gingerly flipped Newman’s car over, no easy task given the amount of fluid and the number of first responders close by. The activity around Newman’s car was a concern, but also a sign of slight hope. “In contrast to what we faced 20 years ago,” said Joy, who was also behind the mic for Dale Earnhardt’s fatal wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, “it was very clear throughout that this was a lifesaving operation.”

It took 16 minutes to extract Newman from the car, an eternity of waiting for NASCAR fans, media and officials. Safety crews installed screens around the wreck, a standard procedure but one which nonetheless conjured up the worst possible speculation. No driver had died at NASCAR’s highest level since Earnhardt, and even the drivers who had sustained some of the worst wrecks of the last 20 years had remained conscious. Not this time.

Up in the booth, Joy and Jeff Gordon walked a delicate balancing act. “You want to be factual, but mostly want to be accurate and not speculate,” Joy said. “You know that due to the severity of the crash, a lot of people [are] tuning in after the race. So you do a lot of recapping. The biggest thing you have to do is keep the frustration out of your voice of not being able to get any kind of updates. We only knew what we could see and what was being relayed to us.”

The extreme length of the postrace extraction meant Fox had to sign off and kick coverage over to FS1. No one in the media knew what was happening for certain, and none of the clues pointed in any definitive direction.

“We’ve just gotten so accustomed to the fact that the cars are so safe,” said Winston Kelley, who was covering the race for MRN Radio on pit road and watched the wreck go past him. “It’s not complacency, but you’re just a little surprised now not to see the driver climb right out of the car, no matter how bad the wreck is.”

“You’re watching for some movement from Ryan,” said Shannon Spake, Race Hub host. “You’re thinking maybe you see something, maybe you’re seeing a hand go up, anything, as they’re taking him away in the ambulance.”

“There was not a lot of communication back and forth to the tower,” said NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell. “They have a job to do and they’re going to do it, and we don’t want to interfere with a lot of useless radio chatter. It doesn’t help if people are screaming and yelling. Let people do the job they’re trained to do.”

After extracting Newman from the car, the AMR safety team loaded him into an ambulance that then sped down pit road, lights flashing. Fans, media and crew members hungry for any kind of news took that as a good sign; no one who had been at the track in 2001 would forget the sight of a silent ambulance slowly rolling away from the wreckage of Earnhardt’s car. Ambulances only speed and run their flashers when there’s more to be done for the patient inside.

The ambulance left the track via the Turn 4 tunnel, turned right on International Speedway Boulevard, and sped two blocks to Halifax Health Medical Center. A medical team began work on Newman, placing him in an induced coma.

One of the keys to a favorable outcome in individuals with brain injuries, Dr. Nedd said, is “access to immediate care. The brain system can collapse, you can stop breathing, your heart can stop working without interventions in the immediate period to protect the brain’s nerve cells.” Dr. Nedd — who did not treat Newman and is not involved with his case — noted that medical comas are often induced in patients with traumatic brain injury as a way to stabilize the brain to prevent overwork and collapse.

While Newman was undergoing treatment, all everyone else could do was wait. And wait. And wait.

Race fans wait outside the emergency room of Halifax Health Medical Center where Ryan Newman was taken after he was involved in a crash during the final lap of the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Race fans wait outside the emergency room of Halifax Health Medical Center where Ryan Newman was taken after he was involved in a crash during the final lap of the 2020 Daytona 500. (AP)

The wait

It’s a sad fact of the news business that media organizations must prepare for the worst-case scenario. While Newman was at Halifax, multiple media organizations began the grim task of preparing obituaries for a 42-year-old driver.

The media center was solemn and silent. In the small cafeteria beside the media workroom, one journalist who was close to Newman sobbed openly, but most focused on their screens and their phones, waiting and writing.

Meanwhile, FS1 had switched to a broadcast of a Xavier-St. John’s basketball game. But in Fox’s Charlotte studios, the Race Hub team of Spake, Larry McReynolds and Jamie McMurray were waiting for any word from Daytona. McMurray had been in speedway wrecks before, and McReynolds had been a close friend of Dale Earnhardt. Spake prepared two cards with different sets of questions for O’Donnell, one for good news, one not.

In Daytona, O’Donnell left Race Control and headed down to the garage. He was in constant communication with everyone from Newman’s family to NASCAR’s safety and medical teams, while trying to think about what, if anything, he might have to say later that night.

The echoes of 2001 were unavoidable. Back then, NASCAR president Mike Helton had delivered the worst possible news: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” On this night, roughly two hours after Newman’s car went airborne, O’Donnell got the news and began walking to the podium in the media center.

“He walked into the room,” Bianchi said, “and you didn’t know what you were going to hear. Are we going to hear what Helton said in 2001?”

O’Donnell spoke for less than a minute. He read a brief statement from Newman’s Roush Fenway team that indicated Newman was in serious condition, but that his injuries were non-life-threatening. Spake shredded and threw away her worst-case scenario question card. Writers deleted their pre-written obituaries.

The rehab

How did Ryan Newman survive such a catastrophic wreck? “It was all of these [safety] systems we’ve spent years working on, and then coming together. And a lot of muscle memory from a lot of people doing everything they needed to do just right,” Bobo said. “And then I’m not going to discount luck.”

While Newman recovered, he was becoming one of the most famous athletes in the United States. His name was among the most searched of the year, and President Trump was among the many thousands who offered thoughts and prayers on Twitter.

Newman, meanwhile, awake and alert tried to figure out how he’d gone from eating shrimp at his parents’ house to Halifax Medical. “I just remember my dad telling me and showing me what happened,” he said, “and it took me asking him to believe ... why I was laying in a hospital bed.”

Trump, as it turned out, formed the basis of Newman’s first post-crash memory; Newman remembers taking a phone call from the president, but can’t put it in a timeline. It’s floating out there, a random, untethered memory.

In fact, Newman’s memory didn’t kick back in for good until right before he walked out the doors of Halifax, holding the hands of his daughters Brooklyn Sage and Ashlyn Olivia. It was instantly one of the most memorable photos of 2020, and one of the final bits of good news from an awful year:

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Newman spent the first few days after his discharge from the hospital at his parents’ home, watching the race with his father and trying to reconstruct what had happened.

He wasn’t alone. NASCAR safety teams began investigating the crash that night, and by Tuesday morning, the mangled cars of both Newman and Lajoie were in Concord, North Carolina, at NASCAR’s R&D facility.

Every NASCAR wreck triggers an investigation, and every NASCAR wreck with an injury, no matter how minor, triggers a more intensive look at what went wrong, what went right and what could be done differently next time. Newman’s wreck, one of the most violent in the last two decades, went under the microscope.

NASCAR engineers narrowed the wreck down to five crucial stages of impact: Newman’s left front hitting the wall, Newman’s left rear hitting the wall, Newman hitting the track, Lajoie’s car hitting Newman’s driver’s side and Newman’s car skidding along the track on its roof. The fourth stage — the collision between the cars, where Lajoie’s bumper hit Newman roughly on the left shoulder — drew the most focus.

“From the hair on his head all the way to the vinyl on [Lajoie’s] car, we looked at all of the systems, and how they worked together to ultimately protect Ryan in this crash,” said John Patalak, NASCAR’s senior director of safety engineering. The entire sequence of safety equipment — SAFER barriers that gave on impact, cars that crumpled on impact, Newman’s seat, the HANS device that restrained his neck, the helmet itself — all worked together just enough to keep Newman alive and walking out of the hospital two days later … barely.

"If you saw a picture of my helmet,” Newman said, “you wouldn't believe my head is still round."

“All of those pieces of safety equipment around the driver performed very well,” Patalak said, “in what was a very challenging crash to those systems.”

The parallels to Earnhardt’s wreck — with the one crucial difference — were unmistakable, and so were the differences. “The culture has changed post-Earnhardt,” O’Donnell said. “It’s expected to talk about safety. It’s OK to talk about new iterations [of safety]. In the past, we kind of talked about it, but then it was, ‘get in the car and race.’ I truly believe Earnhardt’s wreck changed the entire culture of NASCAR.”

“It’s fair to say that the greatest legacy of Dale Earnhardt is that losing Dale pushed NASCAR in a positive direction,” Joy said, “to where a driver like Ryan Newman can have a crash as bad as that, and walk out of the hospital two days later.”

The wreck inspired both short-term and long-term changes; new roll bars, among other features, were placed in cars before 2020’s first Talladega race. Down the road, engineers plan to rework roof bars, the laminate windshield and window netting on NASCAR’s Next Gen car as a result of Newman’s wreck.

“It’s a reminder of just how inherently dangerous the sport is,” O’Donnell said, “and why we do the things we do” for safety’s sake.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 06: Ryan Newman looks on during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 06, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Ryan Newman looks on during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 06, 2020. It was his first time at a racetrack since the crash at Daytona. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Newman’s return to the track

Three weeks after his wreck at Daytona, Newman returned to the track at Phoenix, shaking hands and answering questions about the most traumatic wreck he’d ever faced. Blaney, meanwhile, was carrying a terrible weight. He’d spent most of the Monday night of Daytona fearing the worst, fearing that his actions on the track may have caused a terrible catastrophe. He still won’t watch the last turn of that Daytona 500.

“Really, the time I felt relief was when Amy Earnhardt texted me the next morning and said she was talking to the family and gave me some updates,” he said at this year’s Media Day, “and I was able to talk to Ryan a little bit.”

“I’ll be honest with you, I think I had a personal conversation with him on the phone, I don’t remember it,” Newman said. “But I do remember putting my arm around him and talking to him in Phoenix after I got a chance to see him face-to-face. … I can only imagine what it was like not knowing that night.”

That day in Phoenix, Newman looked rested, ready to return. “It’s great to be alive,” he told Fox Sports. “After looking at my car, it’s a miracle.”

Three days after that, the entire sports world shut down.

Newman rehabilitated as the rest of the world quarantined, and by the time NASCAR was ready to run its first post-shutdown race, at Darlington, Newman was ready to rejoin the 6 team. He just had to convince his team that he could still wheel.

“When I went back in the race car, I was patient, put it that way,” he said. “I spent time on the tractor on the farm, I knew I had what it took. I didn’t want to fence the car at Darlington and give people a chance to doubt me.”

Always a fast qualifier, Newman ended up turning practice laps at Darlington that would have won him the pole. He would be back in the 6 car faster than anyone could have believed.

Newman doesn’t really traffic in the philosophical side of racing. This is, quite simply, what he does, better than almost anyone on Earth, and he’ll keep doing it until someone else tells him he can’t.

“I know how lucky I was,” he says. “There were prayers involved. Guardian angels. But when it’s your time, it’s your time, and nobody has control of that watch. We do what we can to control things from a safety perspective, but the reality is, it could be your time as easily walking down the sidewalk tripping as flipping in a race car.”

That’s part of the reason why he jumped right back in the car when most people would have taken the wreck as a sign to hang up the steering wheel. That, and the fact that he simply has no memory of the crash, so he’s not experiencing any post-traumatic stress.

Has he come away from Daytona a changed man? Well … yes and no. “It made me appreciate things more,” he said. “It’s not so much a change as a magnifier. It’s not like all of a sudden I like Mexican food. It just makes you appreciate other things more. It’s a magnifier of emotions. Life’s that much sweeter.”

Because of the COVID shutdown, Newman ended up missing only three races. His run the rest of 2020 was undistinguished; after his 9th-place “finish” at Daytona, where he led 15 laps, he would only lead 20 more laps and notch one more top-10 finish all year. He finished the year in 25th place, well out of the playoffs, but nobody much worried about that at all.

Late last year, long after he’d answered all the questions about his return, long after the strange and wrenching season had wrapped up, Newman was enjoying a typical quarantine pursuit: laying in bed and scrolling on his phone. YouTube’s algorithm worked perhaps as well as it ever has: suggesting a Ryan Newman compilation video for Ryan Newman himself.

Newman lay there watching every possible angle of his wreck, seeing what seemed like an impossibility. He’s a tough guy, probably the toughest in the sport, but he felt tears gathering in his eyes.

“I looked at it and I watched it and it was just a different perspective,” he said. “Like, ‘Damn.’ But those are tears of respect and appreciation, not tears of sadness, because I was here and I was able to watch it and know that just down the hallway, my kids were going to wake up shortly.”

This Sunday, Ryan Newman will climb back in the car for his 20th Daytona 500. No driver now in the field has run more.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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