Greg Newman recalled hanging on for dear life, arms wrapped around his driver, as he sped to the hospital on the back of a police motorcycle in his blue jeans and flip-flops. It wasn’t the appropriate footwear for the ride and the vehicle was meant to seat only one person, the cop, but Newman wasn’t concerned with his own safety at that point. He had just witnessed his son, Ryan, a NASCAR driver and South Bend native, endure a violent wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and he was trying to get to him.
“It was pretty agonizing just to stand (at the track) and wait, not know what’s going on or see what’s going on or anything,” Newman told The Charlotte Observer about the moments after the accident. “Finally a motorcycle policeman came by and told me they had a car coming real soon to get me.”
“I asked him what was wrong with his motorcycle,” Newman said. “He said, ‘Nothing.’ I said, ‘Well how about you take me?’”
Newman hopped on the back of the officer’s Harley last February for the mile-long drive from Daytona International Speedway to Halifax Medical Center, the same hospital where Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been pronounced dead 19 years earlier after he was involved in a last-lap crash of the same superspeedway race.
His son’s name was quickly making national news and the crash had looked more dramatic than the late Earnhardt’s — there was fire, multiple flips and the fact that the No. 6 Ford Mustang had gone airborne — but Greg Newman wasn’t comparing the accidents. He said he was trying to stay positive that evening as he waited for an update on his son’s condition.
“You just don’t know, so you don’t second guess what’s going to happen,” Newman said.
It was revealed to the public a few hours later that Ryan’s injuries were non-life threatening, but there was no denying that the accident looked bad. Really bad.
“It was obviously an emotionally volatile situation,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark told The Observer. “As we’re on the pit box standing up coming off Turn 4 thinking that you’re going to win the Daytona 500, and then in a flash, you’re no longer concerned at all about the results of a race or anything that is as superficial as a sports competition.
“And all of your focus shifts to thoughts of whether Ryan is okay, and based on the nature of the accident, whether he will survive that crash.”
Ryan Newman was leading in the final seconds of the race and he was on the verge of winning his second Daytona 500, but contact from behind with another Ford driver, Ryan Blaney, turned Newman’s car across traffic and into the outside wall. His car flipped before it was hit on the side by Corey LaJoie’s oncoming car, which propelled Newman’s car flipping higher into the air before it skidded down the track upside down for a ninth-place finish.
Daytona 500-winning duo
Greg Newman said he had watched “probably 99% of every crash” his son has ever been in; For many years, it was his job to help him avoid those crashes as a Cup spotter for Ryan, beginning with his rookie season in 2002. The father-son, spotter-driver duo won the 2008 Daytona 500 together for Roger Penske’s team.
Although Greg Newman retired from his official spotting duties in 2009, he said he watched last year’s Daytona 500 as he usually does: Overlooking the start/finish line from the roof, near where the spotters stand. Newman was the first one to speak on the team’s radio after the crash.
“I don’t say anything on the radio unless it’s absolutely needed,” Newman said. “And the first thing I said was, ‘Talk to us when you can, buddy.’”
“I’ve always been there when anything nasty happened and generally he can speak or at least grasp air or something,” Newman said. “ … This one, we didn’t hear anything so we knew it’s not gonna be good.”
Greg Newman remembered a similarly violent incident during the 2003 Daytona 500 when Ryan and Ken Schrader got together and Ryan’s car was sent into the air after hitting the wall. Ryan walked away from his car unassisted in that instance, but last year, an emergency response team had to extract the unconscious driver from the car and transport him to the hospital.
At that point, Newman said he made his way down to stand outside the Turn 4 tunnel, which is where he convinced the police officer to give him a ride. He said he had been communicating with Fe Roster, a longtime nurse at Halifax Health and family friend, throughout the evening and she was able to provide updates on Ryan’s condition and accompany him to restricted areas in the hospital when family wasn’t allowed. Roster was later honored on the No. 6 car when drivers were able to select frontline health workers to highlight for the race at Darlington.
Greg Newman said he was joined at the hospital by his wife, Diane, who had been watching Ryan’s two daughters. Other executives from NASCAR and the Roush Fenway team were present at Halifax that evening, according to Newmark, including himself and team owner Jack Roush.
“We had crew members, team members that did not want to leave Daytona and they were going to sit in the hospital parking lot until they had comfort that Ryan was okay,” Newmark said, adding that they had to eventually ask the crew to return to Charlotte.
Newmark said he remained in Daytona Beach until Newman was released, and Greg Newman said he stayed in the hospital room with his son overnight. That’s something he said he’ll never forget: “Sitting there all night watching to make sure he was breathing all night long.”
But the doctors had given Newman a “very positive feeling” about the prognosis, he said, and had informed him that Ryan suffered from what they described as a “bruised brain.”
Around 7:30 the next morning, Newman said, his son awoke for another unforgettable moment in less than 24 hours.
“I really can’t remember the first thing he said,” Newman said. “But I remember the second or third thing I said was, ‘Do you want a Krispy Kreme doughnut?’ and he shook his head yeah.
“So I had to go get him some Krispy Kremes.”
The Racers’ Way of Life
Ryan Newman doesn’t recall any of it — flipping through the air, traveling in an ambulance or eating a doughnut the next day.
He said that he only remembers those moments around the accident based on what people have told him, and that the mental “switch” turned back on when he was walking out of the hospital, hand-in-hand with his daughters, two days later. Safety improvements to the car and the medical response can be credited with saving his life, but there’s a lot about the situation that the Newman family can’t explain.
“You have to have it happen to you to understand, I believe,” Ryan Newman told The Observer.
Newman told reporters last week that he’s watched every angle of the crash, but he has no personal memory of his own angle inside the racecar. That also meant he was never afraid to get back in one.
“If you’ve ever been in a car accident or you know somebody that has been in a car accident and they were conscious the whole time, they will always carry that fear with them,” Newman said. “I have no memory. Therefore, I have no fear.
“But it’s also my passion and my love and what I enjoy doing.”
Greg wasn’t surprised at his son’s readiness to return to the track. Ryan missed just three Cup races thanks in part to NASCAR’s pause at the beginning of the pandemic last spring, and he returned in the summer to race at Daytona International Speedway, where he was caught up in an accident and finished 36th.
“It’s part of the racers’ way of life really,” Greg Newman said. “He was ready to get in the car the next week, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it just to make sure he was fully recovered before he got back into a racecar.”
Ryan wasn’t allowed to drive any type of car in the weeks following his crash, and thus, Greg said he became Ryan’s “chauffeur” for a period as he recovered at his parents’ home in Florida.
“I felt like I had to be a kid all over again,” Ryan, 43, said.
While arguments have always been part of their relationship, on a team radio or otherwise, both Greg and Ryan said that their bond is incredibly strong.
“He’s always been there,” Ryan said. “On and off the racetrack my entire career.”
“I know when he’s comfortable, when he’s not comfortable,” Greg said.
He watched his son return to Daytona last year and said Ryan showed no signs of hesitation to “get in there and go as fast as he can and race it just like he’s always raced it.”
“So, I’m right behind him,” Greg said.
Because of NASCAR’s coronavirus protocols that limit attendance this year, Greg Newman said he’s not yet sure where he’ll be allowed to watch Sunday’s Daytona 500 from, but he still plans to be at the race and there for his son, whatever it takes.
“I’ll be there somehow,” he said.