Better Safe Than Sorry
August 14, 2003 | 1:33 P.M. EST
Ryan Newman has been winning poles, races and championships, along with millions of race fans since his racing career starting at the age of four and a half. The 25-year old South Bend, Ind., native has also had his share of flips, rolls, wrecks and fires. It was even joked about at the PEPSI 400 at Daytona in July, that Newman's ALLTEL Dodge should have the No.12 sticker on the bottom of the car so it could be identified. Funny maybe, but there's no doubt the 2003 season has been one exciting ride after another. But, but when the smoke clears and the roll-backs head back to the garage are, Newman's back on track - determined to go win races.
Since his first dramatic incident this season when the ALLTEL Dodge barrel-rolled down the front stretch at Daytona during the 500 in February, Newman hasn't had any trouble holding back his thoughts and recommendations on safety issues for all drivers.
"Ryan's always been a safety nut - not just his, but every driver he races with," said Newman's dad Greg Newman. "It's not something new with him this year just because he's had some bad wrecks. He's always been that way. I remember back in the day of sprints and midgets, if Ryan saw a driver wasn't wearing fireproof underwear, he'd give them a pair of his to wear to make sure they were at least protected for that race."
Newman certainly has a conscience when it comes to safety awareness. It's something that he's carried over into his Winston Cup career. At times, his comments have hit the nerves of NASCAR officials and track safety workers pretty hard. His remarks were not to cause controversy, but were in the defense of drivers to have the best safety crews at their disposal at each racetrack.
"I know there are some higher-ups that don't appreciate my speaking out on safety the way I do, but we all know the saying Othe truth hurts'," said Newman, who's latest statements were made at Watkins Glen when his No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge ended up on its side during a practice session. "The crash itself was very minor, but still your heart beats fast because you don't know what's going on outside the car. You can't tell when you're strapped in if the fuel is running out and if it's going to catch on fire. If you try to get out will the car decide to turn back over and you end up hurt. The car just got loose and got up in the foam. The way the foam caught the car forced it to flip up on the driver's side. If it hadn't flipped it up on its side I could have driven the car back to the pits. The damage wasn't bad - it just looked bad (from the outside)."
The time it took for the safety crews to get to him is what Newman feels a need for addressing.
"I'll be vocal about it because it's my butt that's sitting in that racecar when it's upside down or flipping in the air," said Newman. "Every driver on the race track has a reason to be concerned with the people coming to help them. One of the guys on my team had a stopwatch because he was doing split times. By the time I got out of that car, he had timed them getting me out at a minute and forty seconds and that's neglecting some time before that when he had already started somebody else's split times. I didn't feel like the safety crew was educated on what to do or how to actually get me out of the car. They were asking me if the power was off and I'm trying to tell them they needed to hold the car so I could get out."
Newman's biggest wreck to date was his Daytona rollover. His pride was the only thing hurt as he walked away from his No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge after it made a spectacular barrel roll down the front stretch on lap 57 of NASCAR's "Super Bowl" race. "The first race of the year and one of the biggest for any driver and I destroyed our speedway car," said Newman. "I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time and got up into the wall and then the ALLTEL Dodge went for a heck of a ride. I was just hanging on. Disney World doesn't have one of those kinds of rides. It was a hard lick for sure and the car just shredded apart." His next wild ride was in the second restrictor-plate race of 2003 at Talladega. Newman thought his eighth-place qualifying effort would be enough to avoid Othe big one' if and when it happened. Unfortunately, he was the cause of the big one on lap 3 when he cut a tire that sent his car into Mark Martin. The car speared the outside wall and tipped up on its side before hitting the ground and then slid to the bottom of the race track were it briefly caught fire. "I got lucky again at Talladega," said Newman. "My foot was beat up pretty good. It's funny because I was in two pretty big wrecks up to that point and didn't have a single thing to say about the safety crews, but it seems like I've been the targeted guy when the topic comes up. "I guess it all started when I made some remarks about Jaime McMurray's wreck early this year at Las Vegas. He took a pretty hard hit in the wall and his Busch car caught on fire. I was just responding to questions asked, but I guess no one liked the answers. Fire isn't something that you want to wait on - I know first hand. You never know what is going to happen next and I didn't think the safety trucks got to him in a suitable time frame. "Talladega is where I really ruffled the feathers when I commented on racing restrictor-plate races and how we could make better use of those race dates. There isn't a single driver in the garage that will tell you he enjoys plate racing. If you finish a plate race then you're lucky and the team is lucky because they aren't thrashing to build a new superspeedway car for the next one. It's just a white-knuckled experience and tempers flare and no one likes what is said in the aftermath. Nothing said is personal." Lack of communication on everyone's part is what generates Newman's frustration. When can the safety crews be released to the scene and what exactly is their job when they get there?
"By no means am I trying to shoot down the safety crews we've got now, I just want the communication to be better and that everyone - safety crews and drivers - understand what's going on. When drivers are involved in even minor wrecks on the race track, our adrenaline is higher than normal. You add fire or flips into the equation and our blood pressure is off the charts. I feel everyone involved on teams deserves to know that things will be handled by the best in the business. NASCAR is the best sport, so why shouldn't they have the best of the best in safety working for them?"
Newman's scariest moment may be when his No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge burst into flames on lap 37 during the Sirius Satellite 400 at Michigan International Speedway in June.
"Michigan was definitely a scary deal and not something I'm looking forward to happening again," said Newman. "I was going into turn three when all of a sudden something flamed up. I heard something pop in the motor and it just instantly caught on fire. I thought it was just an oil fire, but it was bigger than that. I tried to walk the car down the banking of the race track, and then I tried bailing out. I had to pull the fire extinguisher, but after I did that, I couldn't breathe. It choked me up pretty bad and I got some burns on my cheek and neck.
"We all see cars when they erupt into flames, but when you're the person inside, you want out as fast as you can. Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader and Bobby Labonte all had worse fires than I did and thanks to the safety crews, we're able to race today. The crews are doing their best and we know and appreciate that, but there is always room for improvement and knowledge is the best thing in safety."
Newman is probably the most outspoken driver on the Winston Cup Circuit when the subject of having a traveling safety crew is discussed. He feels that NASCAR should seriously consider it and that safety shouldn't have a price tag. He feels that a traveling team would be the best answer for the sport at this point in time.
"I think there should be a traveling safety team for sure," said Newman. "It should be a team that is able to communicate to the drivers and crew and know what is going on. They should be trained on all the tracks and know how our race cars are put together and how they come apart.
"The response time at Michigan was quite a bit different. It was a totally different kind of deal. We were on fire and I came to rest close to the safety trucks that were on the apron. At Watkins Glen I was on the outside of the racetrack. They had a certain amount of time they had to wait for cars to clear the racetrack. I understand all that stuff. It's just the communication part I want to see improved. Once the crews got there, I don't feel like they knew what to do and that's not totally their fault. I'm lying in the car, not knowing if fuel is spilling out of it. The other instance I had was at Charlotte after a crash in The Winston, I basically had time to walk back to the pits before the ambulance got there. Things like that need to be worked on.
"The financial issue shouldn't even be a factor or an excuse when it comes to safety, but my point is, it's all about communication. If we could have a safety team at the race track every week and get to know ever single person on that team just like we know John Darby and others at NASCAR - it would make a difference. Those people would know that, for instance, at Watkins Glen the fuel spout is on the right side of the car instead of the left side of the car, things like that." NASCAR officials are working hard on how to make things safer for drivers when the crews aren't at the scene. New fire systems have been tested due to the numerous fires this year; seats and belts were a past focal point and now it's escape hatches. Newman is a safety nut, but that doesn't mean he is ready to jump at the first prototype.
"I want to be as safe as possible in the car and have the easiest access possible if needed, but that doesn't mean I'm going to jump on the first bandwagon that comes along," said Newman. "Escape hatches aren't the obvious answer to anything at this point. Some time in the next two weeks the ALLTEL team is going to make a trip to the tech center and check out some of the things NASCAR is working on. We haven't seen a lot of things yet, so it's hard to define any answers right now. People have asked if I had an escape hatch here at The Glen, if could I have gotten out easier. I didn't have a problem getting out, so no. It was just making sure I was going to be safe and that the car wasn't going to fall on top of me.
"In all my crashes this year, between Daytona, Talladega, California and Watkins Glen, an escape hatch wouldn't have done me any good. I don't think it's an obvious answer right now. It might be an answer for some people, especially someone like Michael Waltrip who is tall and lanky. I think it has the potential to be positive issue, but I also feel it has the potential to be negative. It opens up windows for potential problems. We have tethers on our windows, hoods and deck lids. Is there going to be a tether on the roof and it is a potential for a big Frisbee coming off the top of the car? You never know. Everything needs to be considered."
I spoke with Mike Helton on the subject after I made my comments and he understands my concerns as a driver and with my well-being," Newman concluded. "I believe that sooner or later things will move in the right direction in a faster pace with safety on the race track.
"I'm not looking to be the bad guy, so me and my ALLTEL team are heading to Michigan looking to have a good run and maybe get us our fifth win of the season. I need to show them boys that say I'm in the Infield Care Center more than I am in Victory Lane, that their facts are wrong."
Qualifying for the GFS Marketplace 400 At MIS to set the 43-car field is scheduled to begin Friday, Aug. 15, at 3:05 p.m. EDT. Sunday's 200-lap race is set to take the green flag at 2:00 p.m. EDT. The event will be televised live on TNT TV and MRN Radio will feature live radio coverage.