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Ryan Newman tries to move on from Daytona 500 crash he can't remember

By John Cherwa
Los Angeles Times
Track workers attend to Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 6 Koch Industries Ford, following a crash during the Daytona 500 last year. Newman said he lost all memoory of the horrific crash that hospitalized him.

Imagine if the one thing everyone remembers about you is the one thing you can't remember. It's the world in which NASCAR driver Ryan Newman lives.

Memories of last year's Daytona 500 do not swirl around Denny Hamlin winning his second consecutive 500 but the last-lap crash in which Newman's car went airborne and landed on the roof amid a sea of sparks and fire. Track personnel brought out a screen to keep the public from seeing as Newman was cut from his car, a process that took more than 15 minutes from when the car came to a halt.

Celebrations were muted, fans at the track grew quiet as Newman was rushed to a nearby hospital while everyone waited to find out if the then 42-year-old driver not only would recover but survive. Two days later Newman walked out of the hospital holding the hands of his two young children.

"I've watched every angle I could possibly watch," Newman said of the crash. "The biggest problem is I don't have any memory of my own angle, which is the ultimate angle. That's gone and will always be gone no matter how many times I watch a replay or different variation of that replay. It doesn't change my personal memory because it just doesn't exist."

Newman is able to talk about what he can't remember thanks to a combination of luck and cars built to withstand the most devastating crashes. Newman described it as "big miracles and little miracles." The final diagnosis, put in the simplest way, was a brain bruise. Amazingly, there were no broken bones.

Newman is back at Daytona Beach this week to run Sunday in  the Daytona 500, a race he won in 2008. In fact, Newman has 18 wins on NASCAR's major circuit but those take a backseat to last year's crash. Newman was credited with ninth place as his car crossed the finish line on its roof. Still, the veteran driver brings no trepidation about this year's race.

"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."

According to Google, Newman was the most searched athlete in 2020, with most of that traffic coming in the hours and days after that accident. The video of the crash gets played over and over. But there is one person who doesn't want to watch it again, Ryan Blaney, whose bump precipitated Newman's car going airborne.

"It took me a little bit to get over," Blaney said. "I don't watch that anymore. I watch the 500, but I stop watching right off Turn 4. I just don't want to see it."

Blaney acknowledged that the time after the accident was the most difficult for him.

"Even though it was not intentional, you're still a part of the wreck, so that was definitely tough," Blaney said. "The time I felt relief was when Amy Earnhardt texted me the next morning and said she was talking to their family and gave me some updates. I was able to talk to Ryan a couple of days after that."

The memory of that phone call for Newman is fuzzy.

"I'll be honest, 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 could see his character and what he was feeling internally because of what happened after him seeing me.

"I can only imagine what it was like not knowing that night or in the days after. One of the toughest things we do as drivers is to check our feelings because of what we do and the things that are required of us to be competitive and to push everybody's envelope. It's just the way it is."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death in the Daytona 500, the last fatality in a NASCAR race. Earnhardt's death sparked a movement in racing to make the sport safer through a series of reforms, including head-and-neck restraints on drivers to car construction that allows drivers to survive even the most violent of crashes.

"The reality is that the start of my crash was really no different than the start of [Earnhardt's] crash," Newman said. "I can see the progression that we've had from a safety standpoint and that's … hopefully not the end topic when the checkered flag falls [Sunday]. The real story will be the racing and not the last big crashes that we've had."

Newman is hoping this can be the start of getting the discussion of his career back to racing.

"It would be even more special to come back a year later [and] have an opportunity to come as close as we came last year would be amazing," Newman said. "I've been around long enough to know there are drivers who have never gotten a top 10, let alone a top five. Or in my case, a top 10, on the roof."

That much, Newman can remember.