MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
What should have been a thrilling end turned into a frightening disaster at the Daytona 500 yesterday. During the race's final lap, Ryan Newman's car was bumped from behind, careened into the wall, flipped onto its roof, smashed into another car and finally slid across the finish line upside down and on fire. Newman survived. He was taken to a hospital, where he remains with non-life-threatening injuries. That's according to his racing team.
The crash evoked memories of another crash - same race, 19 years ago - the one that killed Dale Earnhardt and sparked a wave of safety changes in the sport. ESPN's Ryan McGee was there yesterday. He was also there 19 years ago, and he joins us now.
Ryan McGee, welcome.
RYAN MCGEE: Thank you for having me.
KELLY: I have to ask just what went through your mind as you watched this crash on the final lap yesterday.
MCGEE: A lot of old memories came flooding back, and they were not good ones. And you could kind of feel this cloud settle in on us. And all of a sudden, the muscle memory of the way that covering auto racing used to be before all the safety changes - it all came back to you, and quite frankly, those are feelings I don't think any of us wanted to have again.
MCGEE: But thankfully, Ryan Newman is also still with us today.
KELLY: We've mentioned the changes made after Dale Earnhardt's death - safety reforms. How did those come into play in yesterday's crash?
MCGEE: Well, it's funny. When - I've watched the replay so many times now. And, you know, when Dale Earnhardt died, he had a right-front impact into a bare concrete wall. And he was wearing an open-face helmet, and he was in an old race seat that really hadn't changed much since the 1970s that he was still using. There was all this room in the cockpit. It was just this long list. There was no head and neck restraint that would keep his head and keep his neck, you know, pulled toward his body when there was that impact against the wall.
Ryan Newman last night had on a head and neck restraint. Ryan Newman was in a race seat that was custom designed for his build. Ryan Newman was surrounded by a cockpit that had more room in it but yet was much stronger than the one that Dale Earnhardt was in so many years ago. And that very first impact that you saw - when Ryan Newman had a right-front corner impact into the wall, he hit what we call a soft wall. It's called a safer barrier. It's designed to absorb energy away from the car and away from the race car driver. So literally everything on the list - things that all existed before Dale Earnhardt died but weren't mandated until after he was dead - those are the things that saved Ryan Newman's life on Monday night.
KELLY: Yeah. And am I right in thinking there haven't been any NASCAR Cup Series deaths since Dale Earnhardt?
MCGEE: None across NASCAR's top three national series. You know, you have basically - you have the Cup Series. Then you have what's essentially AAA baseball. It's the Xfinity Series and then the Truck Series, and there has not been a death in any of those series. And what's happened is we've kind of been lulled to sleep and got a little bit spoiled, and an entire generation of race fans and the people who cover the sport - race media members - they had never really had to grapple with what we feared was going to be the truth on Monday night. And it was a reminder that so many advances - and thankfully so because I was so miserable back when I first started covering the sport and there was so much death. But it was also a reminder that everything that you do - auto racing is still auto racing, and it's always going to be dangerous.
KELLY: Yeah. You write about that in your column for ESPN this morning - that you, early in your career, watched so many horrific crashes and deaths that you thought about walking away and covering something else.
MCGEE: Yeah. I went to my wife and said, the hell with this. You know, my friends who cover - stick-and-ball sports is what we call it - you know, it was a really big deal for them if a football player suffered a spine injury or, you know, if a baseball player broke his leg. And I was covering funerals on a really regular basis, and it went on like that for six or seven years and - to the point that we all became numb to it and the sport became numb to it. It wasn't just a NASCAR thing. It was Formula 1. It was IndyCar. It was drag racing. It was short track, sprint car racing. Fans, spectators - I was at two races were spectators were killed by flying tires. And so there just was a point where you wanted to walk away.
And then when Superman died - when Dale Earnhardt died, it was finally what - that had to happen for everyone to finally wake up. And as great as Dale Earnhardt was and may have been the greatest race car driver ever born in the United States of America, ultimately, his legacy is going to be every time a Ryan Newman survives a crash, like we saw on Monday night.
KELLY: Yeah. But how do you think about it now? Because obviously, it's fantastic news that Ryan Newman is - looks like - going to be OK, that there haven't been any deaths since Dale Earnhardt. On the other hand, this is controversial. There are a lot of people who argue NASCAR's maybe gotten too safe.
MCGEE: Yeah, and those same people were the ones that - I saw their hands shaking last night in the media center, and I saw them trying to grapple with what they saw Monday night. And so motorsports is the cruelest mistress in all - of any professional sports. And so just about the time that you start thinking, hey; this is too safe, or, these guys are too soft, or, it's not as awesome as it used to be in the good old days - well, Monday night was a reminder that it's just as violent and it's just as fast and it's just as scary and all the things that make the hair stand up on your arms that you love about auto racing. The edge of the envelope is still there, and every now then, that sport will push you over it just to remind you of what it's capable of.
KELLY: Ryan McGee, thank you.
MCGEE: Thank you.
KELLY: He's a senior writer for ESPN talking there about the crash yesterday for Ryan Newman in the final lap of the Daytona 500. Newman's racing team says his injuries are non-life threatening.
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